Shooting the Black Powder Revolver with precision and accuracy
c John L. Fuhring

Precision and accuracy in shooting the black powder revolver
This is article 7 of 8 articles
This is a special addition to my other articles.
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     I hope everybody realizes that there is a big difference between accuracy and precision.  Precision is where the bullets all land close to each other and depending on how well the sights are lined up, that isn't always in the bullseye.  Before we do anything else, we must develop loading techniques that allow our revolvers to shoot at its maximum precision and we must develop shooting techniques that allow us to shoot to our maximum precision.  After we are confident we are shooting well and the revolver is functioning well too, we can work on accuracy.  

     As I mentioned in an earlier article, the most important "mechanical" factor to maintain sustained precision throughout a shooting session is the prevention of the build up of hard fouling in the barrel of the revolver.  Of course, this is done by using shooting grease behind the ball or slug.  This allows the pistol to shoot to its full native precision, which is always much more than what we can shoot it at.  The other factors in precision shooting are psychological and motor control, what I like to call the "human" factors.  These "human" factors can be greatly improved by muscle control practice and having confidence that the revolver can not hurt us by having proper hearing and eye protection and can not startle us or hurt our hand by chainfiring. 

     Accuracy is how close the bullets land near the bullseye.  When we shoot at close range, but with poor precision, the bullets can be all over the place, but all land within the bullseye.  However, at longer range, imprecise shooting will mean missing the bullseye or even the target altogether and it is there where both imprecision and inaccuracy becomes apparent.  Let us assume that we have learded the lessons regarding preventing fouling and that our revolver is shooting with mechanical precision.   The following are suggestions for improving human precision and then I'd like to discuss a marriage between precision and accuracy where the revolver and we are shooting with precision and our sights are aligned so that we shoot with good accuracy too.

Things to practice at home to improve your shooting precision
I absolutely do not approve using these techniques at home with
any kind of pistol other than a black powder revolver.  This kind
of practice, especially with a semi-automatic, is foolish and dangerous
and will eventually lead to tragedy or other serious consequences.
     These are the things I suggest you practice at home with an empty revolver.  Don't worry about damaging the cones because there is a gap between the cone and the hammer.  Please heed the warning above.  I believe it is safe to use this practice because it is nearly impossible to have a live charge in a black powder revolver by accident and a highly visible cap must be there for a discharge.

1)  Hold the pistol firmly, but not in a "death grip."  You should hold it so that it is comfortable even after several minutes.  Holding a pistol too firmly will cause the strained muscles and tendons to shake especially as it becomes uncomfortable to hold the pistol.  Don't worry about the pistol "jumping out of your hand," if you are holding it firmly, it won't go anywhere even if you have a chainfire.
2)  Get very familiar with what it takes to cause the hammer to be released from full cock.  Practice applying pressure to the trigger over and over again until you know just when the hammer will be released.  WHEN YOUR FINGER PULLS ON THE TRIGGER AND RELEASES THE HAMMER, YOU MUST KEEP THE PRESSURE ON THE TRIGGER UNTIL AFTER THE HAMMER IS DOWN.  If you use a very light touch and allow the trigger to return while the hammer is still falling, the sear end will hit the half-cock notch and be damaged and maybe even break the half-cock notch off of the hammer.  This happened to me once and I had to fit a new hammer.    Remember that your revolver is not an auto-loading pistol where you have to take the pressure off the trigger quickly if you want it to fire again quickly.  The revolver has a whole different mechanism that can easily be damaged if the trigger isn't held back long enough for the sear to clear the half-cock notch.
3)  If you don't shoot with two hands, practice doing so.  In the old days, it was traditional to shoot with the revolver straight out as far from the body as possible, but this is not an accurate way to shoot at targets or while hunting and the technique is useful only for "Cowboy Action Shooters" and certain shooting contests.  To us shooters, "Gun Control" means using two hands.
WARNING!! WHEN PRACTICING SHOOTING WITH TWO HANDS AND ESPECIALLY DURING LIVE FIRE SHOOTING, NEVER, EVER PLACE ANY PART OF YOUR HAND, FINGERS OR BODY ANYWHERE  NEAR WHERE THE CYLINDER MEETS THE BARREL OF A REVOLVER.  Always keep the supporting hand in back of the cylinder.  Extremely high pressure gases escape from the gap between the cylinder and the barrel and that thin blade of high pressure gas can cut your hand like a like a sharp knife.
4)  Pick a point on a distant wall as a target and line it up with the front and rear sights of the revolver while giving it all your concentration.
5)  Cock your unloaded revolver and aim for that "target" with your eyes wide open and your concentration given to the sight pattern that includes the target.
6)  Place your finger on the trigger and apply a force just below what you know will release the hammer.
7)  While concentrating all your attention on the target and what it looks like through the sights, automatically let your finger apply the additional force to release the hammer so that when it snaps down, it comes as a surprise.

Things to practice at the range to improve your shooting precision and later your accuracy
    When at the range, these are the things you can practice:  But first -- YOU MUST WEAR EYE AND HEARING PROTECTION!
1)  Set your target up about 3 meters away.  Near targets give you confidence and tell you if your sights are way out or not.  If you are too far away and you miss the target, how will you know if you are shooting high, low, right or left?
2)  Lightly load the revolver using all the techniques I outline in my articles.  This will give you the confidence that your revolver won't chainfire and won't foul up as you shoot.
3)  Hold the revolver as suggested in item 3 above.  Observe safety at all times and keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
4)  Support your shooting hand with a bean-bag or other support, but DO NOT REST THE BARREL OF A REVOLVER ON ANY SHOOTING SUPPORT AND THAT INCLUDES YOUR OTHER ARM, HAND AND FINGERS.  Support your wrist, or the butt of the pistol, but if you insist on supporting the revolver elsewhere, be very careful the support is never even or forward of the cylinder.
5)  While retaining the firm grip on your revolver, bring the hammer to full cock. 
6)  With the revolver pointed down range, apply a pressure on the trigger that is below what you know will release the hammer.  Remind yourself that you, your ears and your eyes are perfectly safe and that when the revolver goes off, it can not hurt you.
7)  Find your target and hold the sighs on it with all the concentration you have after taking in a half-breath.
8)  With your eyes wide open (or at least your shooting eye), let your finger automatically increase the pulling force while giving the target your full concentration.  At some point the hammer will fall and the pistol will discharge almost as a surprise, but as mentioned above, always keep the pressure on the trigger until after the revolver discharges or you may ruin the trigger and/or the hammer.
9)  You will know you have done everything correctly when you realize your eye(s) is (are) still open and you are looking at the target behind a cloud of gunsmoke.
10) When trying to find out where your revolver is shooting, don't worry if you are missing the bullseye (poor accuracy).  Always aim for the exact same spot and do not try to compensate if your revolver is shooting up or down or to one side or another.  Once you start getting good groupings (precision), you can work on accuracy.

     Once you know where your revolver is shooting and have confidence that the groupings are due to the sight alignment rather than your shooting, you can then do things to improve your accuracy.  Remember that for many, many reasons, the bullet placement on a target is a statistical average and a firearm can not match the precision of a laser in that regard. Having an element of randomness, accurate shooting has somewhat an element of luck in addition to skill and good preparation and that's what makes for good shooting days and bad shooting days.  Having said that, luck is on the side of the well prepared.

     First, shoot a series of at least 12 carefully aimed shots.  You must follow all the loading and shooting suggestions outlined above.  Try to minimize all the variables including fouling and your own shooting quirks so that sight alignment is now the most important variable.  When you check the target, do your best to determine where the center of the group is.  There is a mathematical way of finding the center using Cartesian coordinates, but just eyeballing it works almost as well.  You can assume that the center of all the hits is about where your revolver is shooting.  Ignore any "fliers" that you suspect are your fault.  Again, there is a randomness that occurs even under the best of conditions, so not all the bullets holes will be anywhere near touching, but will be bunched in a statistically meaningful way around a theoretical center.  It is that theoretical center we want to adjust our sights to.

     When measuring how far the center of your group is from the bullseye, you will notice it will have both a vertical and a horizontal component.  For example, perhaps your revolver shoots 1 inch high and 1/2 inch to the left at 5 yards.  These components should be adjusted separately to avoid confusion.


Work on your vertical accuracy first
     If your Remington type revolver is shooting just a bit high, that is good because all you have to do is shoot with the bullseye on top of the front sight.  However, if you are shooting unacceptably too high, you may want to order a taller front site from Dixie Gun Works.  If your Remington revolver is shooting a bit low, it might be possible to file a little off the top of the front sight.  

     By the way, I have two Uberti Remington .44s.  The older one came from the factory with a short front sight that is right on the money, but the newer one came with a hugely tall front sight.  I took files to the range and ended up taking a lot of metal off the front sight, and now it shoots where I like it to -- with the bullseye on top of the front sight.  I was careful not to mar the revolver with the files and if I say so myself, I didn't hurt the looks of the revolver at all.

     I have never encountered a Colt type that shoots low, but the same thing applies if you have a custom front sight that is too tall, just file off the front sight until it shoots where you want it.  If your Colt type shoots unacceptably high (a much more common occurrence), check to see if your hammer is going back all the way.  If it isn't, you probably need to buy and fit a new trigger because the one you have is too short.  If your revolver shoots way too high with the hammer back all the way and you are handy with tools, you can make a new site out of a brass key that you shape with a file.  My Colt style "Baby Dragoon" .31 revolver shot so ridiculously high, I had to make a taller front sight for it.  Actually, I killed two birds with one stone: I made a narrow "blade" type front sight that is more precise than the original ball type and I made it taller so it shoots lower.  It is my opinion that a well made front site improves the looks of a Colt style revolver.

     I absolutely do not recommend taking any metal off the rear sight of a Colt type revolver's hammer under any circumstances.  Once again, If the rear sight in the hammer isn't low enough, buy and fit a new trigger or make a new front site (which ever is appropriate), but leave the hammer alone.  I don't know anybody (including myself) who wasn't extremely sorry they ruined a perfectly good hammer and the looks of their revolver by cutting into the rear sight.  

Horizontal accuracy
     Remington type revolvers can sometimes shoot off to the right or left.  If your revolver is off just a small amount and your front sight is dovetailed into the barrel, take a small hammer and a brass punch and carefully move the front sight a slight amount in the direction you wish to move your group center.  If the revolver does not have a dovetailed front sight or it is off a lot, it is very easy for a gunsmith to give the barrel a very slight twist one way or another.  Just tell the gunsmith what's wrong and he will fix it in just a few minutes.  For example, if the revolver is shooting off to the left, the barrel needs to be screwed in a touch tighter.  I had this done to my first inexpensive Remington, the one I used for reenacting (and the one that was stolen).  It was way off (you could even see it wasn't in alignment), but with a little tweak,  the revolver went from one with very poor accuracy to one sweet shooting piece that was well worth all the extra gunsmithing work I did to it (gee, I hated to loose that pistol).

     For Colt type revolvers that shoot very slightly off to one side or another, you can add a little "Kentucky Windage" by shooting off to the opposite side.  Fortunately Colts that shoot badly to one side are pretty rare (in my experience), but if you have one that does, there is something that can be done, but you must be handy with tools and you must do it very carefully.  A reader has recently told me about a clever way he fixed his Dance and Brothers reproduction.  I have no experience dong this, but all the steps are logical and make good sense to me.  If I had a Colt type revolver that was so far out that I just couldn't live with it, the following is precisely what I would do BUT:

Please be aware that if these steps are not done with care and precision, you will ruin
your revolver.  Do the following at your own risk and only after you have given it a
lot of though and are absolutely sure it is the revolver and not you causing the problem.
Avoid large changes, but bring the revolver in to alignment gradually.

Remember that this is a "one time adjustment" and if you rush things
and go too far,
you will have to live with the consequences.

1)  Set up a little workspace at the pistol range away from the firing line and equip it with a narrow "swiss" file, a larger smooth cut file, and a small vice with soft jaws or other means to protect your barrel's finish.  You might need to take a portable work bench with you.
2)  Take the barrel off and place it in the vice with the rammer facing you.  Make sure the vice and barrel are held very firmly in place with no rocking or other movements.
3)  Take a small file and file down a shallow groove between the two dowel holes with the narrow file.
4)  If your revolver is shooting off to the right, take the larger file (AKA, a "Mexican Milling Machine"), hold it in the center with about 3-4 inches between your hands and carefully plane off the bluing (if present) and a very small amount of metal from the left side dowel hole area.  Keep the overall area on both sides of the groove as flat as humanly possible by laying the large file across both sides, but applying more pressure on the side you want to remove metal on as you take a stroke.  Between strokes, keep checking to see if your file rocks up and down.  If you have rocking and the center groove is all filed out, refile the shallow center groove with the narrow file and flatten the upper surface by removing a tiny amount of additional metal as necessary.
5)  If your revolver is shooting off to the left, do the same as 4) only do it for the right side.
6)  Remove the metal filings, reassemble your revolver and put the wedge in tight
7)  Check for wobble.  If you have wobble, file the center a little with the narrow file and make sure your larger file lays flat between the dowel holes as in step 4.
8)  Shoot at least 12 shots with as much precision as you can using all the aids already discussed.
9)  Determine where the center of your target pattern is.  If it is still off, repeat steps 2 through 9 as many times as necessary to bring your aim point to where your impact point is.  When you are "close enough" I suggest you stop rather than try for perfection.  As mentioned, there is a randomness to bullet placement even under the best circumstances and you could easily go too far in your adjustments.

 Even though you may have removed bluing (assuming blued steel), you will notice that you will not be able to see any disfigurement when the revolver is assembled.  When done, you may want to hold this end in a hot flame to give it a light "flame blue" (if your revolver is not a stainless steel version).

    Perhaps the most psychologically important thing is to have a lot of confidence and that can only be gained by experience and learning to trust your revolver.  When you come to realize how precise your pistol really is and how well your sights are aligned, you can then start shooting off hand, but try to use two hands unless otherwise called for.  A steady aim builds confidence as much as a revolver that is mechanically sound and doesn't chainfire.  Especially when hunting, you must use every support you can find to steady your aim even if it's not the position you would use at a shooting competition.  Leaning on a tree or even kneeling down works for me.  When hunting, the ethical way is to shoot with utmost accuracy so that the game animal is dispatched quickly and humanely, so you should use all the shooting aids you possibly can.

     Except in some Cowboy Action Shooting events, you should never attempt to do live shooting off the back of a horse.  If the horse hasn't been specially trained to gunfire, you could be killed (as I nearly was a couple of times - and I have the scars to prove it).  Shooting at game from horseback is highly unethical because it is virtually impossible to kill humanely even at a spitting distance.  I've seen this attempted on wild pigs and the results weren't pretty, they were stupid and brought shame and ridicule on the shooter that people will talk about for decades.  

     Finally I'd like to say something about prejudices we might carry over from other kinds of shooting.  I rather amazed myself and my military shooting instructor when I first fired the M-16 many, many years ago.  To me, it was like firing BB gun.  My 7X57 Mauser is a little harder to shoot, but I can easily handle it.  The magnum rifles, elephant guns and rifled shotgun slugs I've shot take a tremendous effort of concentration for me to shoot accurately.  My point is, with a black powder revolver, you are now in the category of "large and deadly" revolvers made for war and shooting them is nothing like shooting an airgun or a target .22.  Many of the things that work for those weapons are inadequate for shooting a .36 or a .44 black powder revolver.  Having said that, that does not mean that you can't do accurate shooting and have even more fun shooting a .36 or .44, it's just that you will need to learn new things.  By the way, if you are used to shooting a 1911 .45 ACP and you are anything like me, you will be amazed and pleased at how much easier it is to hit a target with your revolver especially at ranges that exceed a so-called "point blank range."

Some Final Thoughts
     Look friends, these are only my opinions and my suggestions.  I suggest you think about them and apply only those you think are safe and make sense to you.  I hope this has helped and if it has, I would appreciate it if you would get back to me.  In fact, I wish you would get back to me and tell me what does and does not work for you.
If you have any detailed comments, questions, complaints or suggestions, I would be grateful if you would please
E-mail me directly

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