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Thread: Well, It Happened

  1. #1
    Boolit Master
    Bent Ramrod's Avatar
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    Well, It Happened

    I was out yesterday with a friend doing our monthly plinking session with cap-and-ball revolvers. This time, I took my old Armi San Marco Walker clone. I had traded for it maybe 25 years previously and it is one of those guns that is as much a gunsmithing project as a shooter. I have a few of these "betes noires" in the safe and every now and then I drag one of them out, attend to their latest woes and complaints, and go "Waltzing Matilda" with them to see what else they will do to to aggravate me. Just stubborn, I guess. The last operation was gluing in the arbor with JB Weld to correct a tendency to loosen on firing from the rather coarse threads and lack of "meat" at the rear of the frame.

    It had done well with ~30-grain charges the last time out; the arbor had remained tight. This time I changed out the spout for one closer to 50 grains, to see how the arbor would handle the extra strain. (Shooting wimp loads in a Walker is not satisfying; it's like running errands in a Nitro-Burning Funny Car.) The gun was performing very well, regularly popping all our accumulated water-filled household throwaways, except for one particularly defiant and invulnerable coffee can, which appeared to have the power to deflect round balls under, over and to the sides.

    I had fired at least 40 shots, and the cylinder was beginning to turn rather stickily. I popped out the wedge and daubed some Bore Butter on the arbor, which, to my delight, was still tight in the frame. Reassembly showed the cylinder turned as easily as at the beginning of the session, which is really noteworthy. On my other revolvers, using much smaller charges, the arbors must be wiped with a wet cloth and relubed after 60 shots max, and the disassembly and relubing will need to be done again after another three or four cylinders. Eventually, the disassembly and wiping becomes more frequent than the shooting in between, and it's time for lunch.

    This time, the Walker had had no misfires, was shedding busted caps out the cutout in the side of the recoil shield--neither sticking on the nipples nor falling down into the lockwork (my friend's 1851 Navy is a particular offender that way) and though the loading lever now loosened after a cylinder full of these heavy loads, it didn't fall far enough to tie up the gun. Ramming was getting harder; the chambers were a little rough, and perhaps the fouling was accumulating in there. Some of the balls needed a second ram as they were rising from air compression in the chambers while others were being loaded. I swabbed Bore Butter on top of the round balls, and was using Navy Arms RWS #11 caps, pinched slightly before insertion so they didn't fall off. Hey, all right, I thought; maybe the old clunk is finally starting to work like it should.

    Another couple cylinders did their devastation on the milk cartons and plastic bottles. The cylinder was still turning fine. Time for another try at the coffee can. I loaded, greased and capped the cylinder and pointed the gun at the target. Have at you, Sir, I thought, and pulled the trigger. There was a tremendous, ragged roar, like that of a Volley Gun, and the target was obscured by smoke. "Hey, was that a Chain Fire?" Steve asked.

    Yes it was, the Mother of all Chain Fires. I had experienced a couple or three in the past, generally confined to the next load to the right of the barrel; once or twice the one adjacent to that also went off. This one was the entire cylinderful, and, exasperatingly, none of the shots had hit the coffee can. I gingerly peeked sideways at the chambers, seeing they were all empty, and noted the cylinder still seemed to rotate OK. I rotated the cylinder, flicking the caps off the nipples. They had all cooked off; except for the lack of priming compound, they looked unfired. The bottom chamber had driven the ball against the rammer, but the lever was still up. I pulled it down, and, with some effort, pushed the ball out of the rammer slot. The ram still slid normally, and none of the screws seemed bent. Elmer Keith's experience that the rammer had been upset in the slot and had to be driven out and turned down to work again hadn't happened to me. The barrel was still wedged in the arbor; nothing was loose.

    I cocked the gun, pulled the trigger while holding the hammer and letting it down gradually. It looked like the gun still functioned, although the outside was all over black powder fouling and grey lead smears. Well, time for lunch. We packed up all the shot-up and undamaged targets, including the ironclad coffee can, and drove to the restaurant.

    When I got home, I took the revolver completely apart and cleaned it. The arbor was still tight. (Thanx and a wave of the Bent Ramrod to whoever gave me the JB Weld idea; that is Good Stuff!) All the parts came out, looked normal, and the reassembled, cleaned and lubed gun seems to function normally. The cylinder has (and had) no endshake, but the cleaned chambers still look rough. I think I'll polish them out and go to 0.454" balls next time; the .452" balls were obviously none too tight and maybe the roughness of the chambers, the looseness of the balls in the chambers and the much larger powder charges had allowed the flame to get in the front and set the cylinder off.

    The saving grace of revolvers is that the assembly is out in front of you and any mishap will likely project forward and vertical. No magazine under one's hand or slide to come back at one's face. Still, nothing to be complacent about; at a regular pistol range, with shooters shoulder-to-shoulder, there might be serious consequences. But I'm kind of gratified at the way the old Armi San Marco took the abuse. The Walker is too massive to even recoil hard under the chain-fire, although the recoil was noticeable, for sure. It'll be going out again in the future, with some lessons learned.
    Last edited by Bent Ramrod; 03-01-2018 at 10:16 AM.

  2. #2
    Boolit Master
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    You were pretty lucky with that. it is nice the gun didn't get damaged too. Did you use something like Crisco grease over each chamber after it was loaded? I smear each cylinder end on top of the bullets with Crisco before I fire it. The grease tends to get blown out but some still seals the bullets in good preventing chain fires. Granted it is a little more messy though. But not bad.

  3. #3
    Boolit Master


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    Chain fires come from worn nipples ot wrong primers not from the front

  4. #4
    Boolit Master
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    Only time I've had a chain-fire I wasn't greasing the chambers. I would guess Bent Ramrod's balls are too small from his loading description in the OP.

    I do know that my Uberti Dragoon needs .457" balls for a tight fit. The bigger the charge the less grease you can get in the chamber....more cylinder gap flash too.

    Loose caps and igniting from the back of the cylinder I presume to be possible. I made a 'jig' thingy-bob with a small tapered hole that I use to re-size #11 caps for a better fit on revolver nipples. However a nearby gun store has started to keep a really good supply of reloading stuff..including black powder..substitute powder and all sizes of caps!

    I've never really bought into the chain-fire from the rear theory as a primary cause of the phenomenon. I've shot hundreds and hundreds of shots from BP revolvers with pinched #11 caps without any KABOOMS. I think loose ball fit...large powder charges and little or no chamber grease cause the lion's share of the issue.

    I also never really understood why any particular manufacturer can build a fine looking/working percussion revolver but cannot put nipples on them that will fit any particular size cap! I mean really? #11 caps of about any make are loose...and #10 caps are usually so tight it's scary pushing them on a loaded chamber's nipple far enough to clear and rotate...(I can visualize caps igniting other chambers if they are touching the frame!)

  5. #5
    Boolit Master
    swheeler's Avatar
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    Sounds fun, 300 grs of black does make a lot of smoke!
    Hell, I was there!

  6. #6
    Sounds like you were pretty lucky. You still have both the gun and your body parts.

  7. #7
    Boolit Master

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    Wow! This is certainly a topic that is very interesting and timely in my life! Back in the early '80s I was getting interested in black powder revolvers. Stupid me. I will only say in my own defense that everyone starts somewhere. I had 3 such incidents in about a 6 week period! I bought a Uberti 1860 Army .44. I did read the information that came with the handgun, the various cautions and warnings, but for some reason didn't take all of it seriously. I might also say that I didn't acquire my first computer until the mid-'90s, so lacked that resource.

    Anyway, I knew that the Colts were widely used in the Civil War, and had seen movies of soldiers (actors!) reloading and resuming firing, and never observed any of them using grease in the tops of the cylinder chambers. And logic would seem to indicate that one wouldn't have time for the grease step in the heat of combat. I don't know the truth of this (but hope that someone does and will expound on it) so I decided to skip the step. I just went with the powder, ball, and cap. I guess I should also say that at that time I had just read numerous articles about what great stuff Pyrodex was, far superior to black powder; so I was a Pyrodex baby, and the truth of the matter is that to this day that is all I have ever used. RS in rifles, P in handguns, but have also picked up a couple of pounds of Select and Ctg. for future experimentation.

    Well, I got away with it for perhaps 60 or 70 shots, and then experienced my first chain fire. Just one more than I intended to fire, and it scared the dickens out of me. So, that encouraged me to do a lot more reading and chatting with other shooters, and I heard about the grease as being essential to living a long, un-maimed life. So, I greased them with Crisco. At this point I'll just interject that, for me at least, Crisco proved unsatisfactory for use as it tended to melt and run out of the mouths of the chambers after the first or second shot heated up the cylinder. Eventually I bought a can of high temperature bearing grease which proved to stay in place better -- but still wasn't perfect. Also tried white lithium grease and CVA Grease Patch (which seemed like white lithium grease in a proprietary package and label), petroleum jelly, and several other concoctions, with the bearing grease seeming the best.

    Things went along fine for awhile and then it happened again! This time, with the grease which at the time was Crisco, two additional cylinders fired. I had intended for the one at 12 O'clock to go off, but not those at 9 O'clock and 3 O'clock! Talk about "shock and awe"! But I congratulated myself on still having my major body parts and upon not having dropped the beautiful revolver in the dirt. At this point I began to really respect Col. Colt and his design ability, in that the 1860's barrel is scalloped in on both sides in front of 9 and 3 O'clock and allowed the balls to pass without striking the forward part of the revolver. This lead to speculation that chain fires must have been well known back in the day when the revolvers were designed, and even if not a desired event certainly an anticipated event.

    Back to the drawing board, as they say. Read more, talked more, and heard the theory that chain fires originate at the back of the gun through loose caps, loose nipples, worn or defective nipples. Some folks were saying that the fire somehow made it's way from the forcing cone back around to the rear and entered one of these openings. Others said the explosion from the cap crossed over to adjacent nipples and entered their chambers (despite the presence of their in place caps), while others said, no, the fire entered from around loose or undersized nipples. And the argument for fire entering adjacent chambers from the front continued as well, loose ball, no grease, etc.

    Now being a fastidious cleaner of firearms I always removed the nipples for cleaning, so thought that perhaps I hadn't reinstalled them tightly. I paid special attention to that when reassembling the 1860 after cleaning, and put some grease in the threads to seal any possible entrance around them and to assure that they could be removed again. Thought I had all bases covered until it happened again. I decided to "hang it up" after again having both 12 and 3 O'clock discharge at the same time. Lots of years have passed and I have again become interested in the old C&B revolvers and am getting back into it. But I guarantee you that I'll always wear shooting glasses, and have added one more step to loading them which is the addition of the little red tubular "cap guards". They keep the cap in place, provide some waterproofing, and I believe that they will prevent any crossing over of spark from the cap that is intentionally fired to an adjacent chamber. They're pretty inexpensive, and speed loading isn't in the cards for these revolvers anyway, so what's one more step for insurance?

    All of the foregoing having been said, here's what I wonder about: Was this a problem during the Civil War? Were there any injuries resulting from chain fires during that era or since? Frankly, I've never heard of any, but it's not logical to assume none happened. Then, in the period following the war, say from 1865 until 1873 when the Single Action Army came on the scene, did the Army have a solution to preventing the chain fire problem? I suppose that somewhere there exists a manual describing the regulation way to load the 1860? I'd be fascinated to read it.

  8. #8
    Boolit Master Idz's Avatar
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    Reading accounts of battlefield muskets being found with multiple balls and charges in the barrel I suspect in the heat of battle soldiers didn't operate at full capacity and a chain fire probably went unnoticed.
    I haven't had a chainfire yet but I use a waxed wad under the ball instead of crisco.

  9. #9
    Boolit Master
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    My theory is that the roundballs were too undersized, even if they shaved a ring. .452 balls would be fine for awhile, but when the fouling began, and they became harder to ram, the grit, fouling, **** - whatever - kept the undersized balls from forming and sealing properly in the cylinder.
    I had two chain fires, in two different .36 revolvers, and the common denominator was the mold from which the balls were cast. They were irregular in shape and did not completely fill the cylinder. Did you cast the balls? If so, check the mold.
    I started using the vegetable spray PAM over the balls. As mentioned, Bore Butter is gone after the first shot, but PAM stays around longer. I also use it on the arbor and down the barrels of my muzzleloaders.

  10. #10
    Boolit Master

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    Definitely some food for thought, Battis. No, I did not cast the balls myself. I have both .44 and .36 molds, but have never used them. Your thought about fouling changing the seal is a good one, but like I said, I've always used Pyrodex which in my experience produces less fouling. I forgot to add that I now use Ox Yoke Wonder Wads under the ball and the bearing grease over the top. Kind of like wearing both belt and suspenders, I guess!
    Now I use Hornady .452 dia. balls. They have a very prominent sprue mark, and I'm being very careful to have it be straight up or straight down, my thinking being that if it goes in sideways that could effect the ball's seal. No misadventures so far. I'm also really sold on the cap guards for keeping the caps in place, because, in addition to the other benefits I cited, I can see where if recoil caused a cap to fall off a chain fire could then occur through the nipple with the missing cap. Not authentic or true to period, I know -- but neither is Pyrodex.

  11. #11
    Boolit Master
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    My father had a chainfire while using felt wads. No way that came from the front.

  12. #12
    Boolit Master ofitg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Der Gebirgsjager View Post
    I suppose that somewhere there exists a manual describing the regulation way to load the 1860? I'd be fascinated to read it.
    1861 Manual of Arms -

    https://web.archive.org/web/20140530...ks/carbine.cfm

    No mention of wads or lube - the soldiers were training with cartridges (probably non-combustible cartridges, since they discarded the paper), and so far as I have heard, such cartridges used conical slugs instead of round balls.
    Last edited by ofitg; 01-18-2018 at 11:40 PM.
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  13. #13
    Boolit Master
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    Der Gebirgsjager, you had a chain fire with Pyrodex? I always wondered if that could happen.
    I read that Colt sprinkled loose powder over the chamber mouths during the Army testing to prove that the guns were safe. He did not have one chain fire.
    Apparently the early Colt Patersons had shrouds over the nipples, which caused all kinds of chain firing.

  14. #14
    Hey tome boy, I'm not so sure that "Chain Fires" are caused from the caps.
    See this article by John L. Fuhring.

    http://www.geojohn.org/BlackPowder/bps2Mobile.html

  15. #15
    Boolit Master
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    I've seen this before. I must say that I find it rather difficult to believe that lead can be engraved by a grain of black powder like that. It just doesn't seem plausible to me. Being much harder it would just push it back into the chamber to my thinking.

    My father's chainfire happened with a felt wad between the powder and ball. He didn't slather any lube over the chamber mouths adding something for powder to stick to.

    Has anyone had or heard of a chainfire with conicals?
    Last edited by rodwha; 01-19-2018 at 08:26 AM.

  16. #16
    Boolit Master
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    That's exciting !

  17. #17
    Boolit Master
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    I don't think the lead was engraved as much as the chamber's dimensions changed (unevenly), which is why the balls were harder to ram down due to the fouling. And if the balls were too small to begin with (.452), a path could be, might be, opened for a spark or flame or whatever.
    Then again, each chamber would have to be more or less uniformly "deformed" due to the fouling, which is hard to believe. It would have to be a perfect storm scenario in each chamber. Maybe it is a case of chamber mouth and loose nipple, or a bad recoil shield, or who knows what...
    I do know that, in my case, the balls had uneven surfaces due to the damaged mold. Was that positively the cause of my chain fires? There's no way to prove it, but you gotta go with the odds.

  18. #18
    Boolit Master
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    In a recent multi-chainfire incident it was shown to likey be from the cylinder's ability to move fore and aft with nipples that way have been slightly too long this hammering 5 of the caps against the recoil shield and firing those 5 of 6 chambers.

    I've also read of tests done in attempts to achieve chainfires by leaving caps off of nipples as well as using undersized balls with neither achieving the result.

    On one hand I see it hard to believe that the flames we see from the nipple side could turn around a slightly loose fitting cap, bend again to slide down the nipple channel far enough to ignite the charge. And then on the other, assuming a proper chamber and projectile, flames passing the driving band.

    In my father's case I don't see how flames could have passed both the ball and the felt wad.

    Despite using Rem #11 caps that required pinching I never got a chainfire. But as soon as that one tin was used I set forth to work on proper cap fit.

  19. #19
    Boolit Master

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    Battis - yes, with Pyrodex. Not once, but three times! I've never used black.

    ofitg - Thanks for that research. Very interesting. Highly trained horses, to put up with all that nonsense occurring on their backs! Yes, it does seem like they were using cartridges of ball and powder and discarding the paper. First instinct would be that the paper would be used as a patch, but obviously any exposed paper would burn and cause a chain fire.

    Like I said in my second post on this subject, getting back into this area of shooting after an approx. 30 year absence I now am doubly safe and probably doubly apprehensive. But so far, using a lubed felt wad under the ball, grease over the ball, and the cap guards I have had no incidents.
    I was just telling the story, and do not feel competent to side with anyone on how these events occur. The truth may be that they can happen in any one of two or three ways. One this is for certain - if it happens you'll know it!

    A skill I'm trying to master is to get those little felt wads to enter the chambers in a nice, round, smooth configuration so that they sit flat without bending and tipping and picking up granules of powder on the top surface of the wad on the way down. At present that's the situation with about 50% of them. That makes me a bit nervous - having a little bit of powder on the top surface of the wad - and it's a pain to fish them out again. And you can't get the lube to let go of the powder particles, so you either have to discard the wad and try again, or just go with it. So adding the grease on top of the ball sure makes me feel better.

  20. #20
    Boolit Master
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    I used to make lube sticks out of the beeswax-paraffin lube. Plug the barrel, pour the lube from the other end, let it cool, push it out and bingo - lube sticks from which you can cut lube pills that exactly fit the chamber. These went over the ball. Did they work any better? Well, they were easier to use at the range.
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Abbreviations used in Reloading

BP Bronze Point IMR Improved Military Rifle PTD Pointed
BR Bench Rest M Magnum RN Round Nose
BT Boat Tail PL Power-Lokt SP Soft Point
C Compressed Charge PR Primer SPCL Soft Point "Core-Lokt"
HP Hollow Point PSPCL Pointed Soft Point "Core Lokt" C.O.L. Cartridge Overall Length
PSP Pointed Soft Point Spz Spitzer Point SBT Spitzer Boat Tail
LRN Lead Round Nose LWC Lead Wad Cutter LSWC Lead Semi Wad Cutter
GC Gas Check