The Hobby Gunsmith has received a quite a bit of mail about the number of cartridge conversion we've done over the last year. Many people want to know why we focus so much on conversions. One reason is that they are just plain fun, but the other is more political.
My focus on cartridge conversion's goes back about a year and a half when I first saw the writing on the wall about changes in Cowboy Action Shooting under the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS). I started to see several threads on the SASS wire about the need to ban the practice of using the revolver hammer to seat percussion caps. I was a defender of the hammer seating technique then, and I defend it today. I do not, however, recommended it to those who are uncomfortable with the practice.
The matter came to head at a recent Territorial Governor's meeting in Las Vegas when they elected to ban the practice of hammer seating. It was at that time that I chose to convert all of my percussion firearms over to shoot cartridges. I am proud to say that I now have only my colt Walker as a percussion firearm, which is not used in Cowboy Action and will remain as a percussion revolver for range shooting.
I normally avoid editorials that will create controversy, but I am stepping up on my soapbox this time as a result of what I recently read in the June issue of the Cowboy Chronicle. In this issue one of the SASS life members wrote a letter entitled, "Misguided Attempt at Safety." The writer explains that it is not unsafe to have an accidental discharge as long as the bullet goes down range and does no harm.
In his response, the editor of the Cowboy Chronicle wrote: "And the governors were accused of self-serving! One wrong slip with the hammer and it's all over. Although a few very responsible competitors have used this technique for years, in the considered opinion of 300 other seasoned shooters, it's judged to be an accident waiting to happen. If there is an accidental discharge while using the other available techniques, field tests have shown the likelihood of imminent danger is very low. Either get with the program or leave your Cap & Ball pistols at home... Editor"
Let's take a look at this argument. When the situation first became public a couple years ago, I agreed with the author of the letter to the Cowboy Chronicle editor and made many strong arguments on the SASS wire about why hammer seating should be allowed. Having said that, I would also like to point out that I've been shooting percussion revolvers for over 20 years and had never used the hammer to seat a percussion cap until I became involved in Cowboy Action Shooting.
It was while capping a revolver at the loading table that I looked at the person next to me and saw him he seating is caps using the hammer. My first reaction was to think of it as being unsafe. I even stepped back to place his body between his revolver and my own body.
I went home and thought about what I had seen and realized that the person seating the caps using the hammer was actually practicing a more safe method than mine. I immediately adopted the method after practicing it at home and assuring myself there would be a low risk of danger. My decision to begin using hammer seating was reinforced a few weeks later when I experienced a detonation while seating a cap on an unloaded percussion revolver and I learned that caps can ignite under low force.
We must recognize that well-meaning people very often confuse two words. These words are accident and safety. Let's start by looking at what accident really is. An accident is an unforeseen incident. It is something that happens that we did not intend and may be something that causes harm.
For example, if I draw my revolver during a stage and the bullet strikes the target, that's an intended discharge. I intended to strike the target so any other outcome would be unintentional. If I pull my revolver and miss the target, it was not three desired outcome and is an accident, or an accidental discharge. Most accidental discharges occur down range into the berm with only the shooter knowing the gun had been fired at the wrong instant. Sometimes we see an accidental discharge with the bullet striking the ground near the target. These are examples of safe accidents.
Safety is the condition of being safe from danger, risk, or injury. When we speak of safety, we speak in terms of avoiding injuries. Some injuries may come as a result of an accident, but not all accidents are related to safety. An accidental discharge down range into the wrong target or the berm is an accidental discharge, but not an unsafe condition. Unfortunately, many people remain so focused on the avoidance of accidents that they loose track of this basic concept.
When I began hearing people wanting to ban hammer seating, I began observing how guns are held while being capped. From this non-scientific research, I have come to the personal conclusion that most people hold their percussion revolvers in a way that places their fingers in front of the cylinder while capping.
It happens that I teach risk management to college students working on their
bachelorís degrees. I have examined the research done to support the rule
change and consider their findings to be flawed. I consider it irresponsible
to use the conclusions cited in the Cowboy Chronicle as justification for
this change in the rules. Here is why.
The research to justify the new rules used two very popular firearm frames and did excellent ballistics research. I find no flaws in the work they did. They determined than a bullet going down the barrel of a percussion revolver to have enough energy to be lethal. That conclusion is probably supported by hundreds of deaths during the Civil War from percussion revolvers.
The research team also fired balls down range using only the cylinder and a normal blackpowder load. The purpose of this test was to determine what happens when a ball is discharged from the loading position down the right side of the revolver. They determined it would not be lethal, which I agree.
I would have no issue with their findings if the team had stopped at this point, however, they used these findings to establish it is safe to allow an accidental discharge down the right side of the revolver, but not to have one down the barrel. Although they were attempting to determine where the ball would go, a conclusion has been incorrectly drawn that wherever it goes will be safe. I also suggest that the need for these tests indicates they have accepted the likelihood of one of these accidents occurring.
Prior to their testing, I interacted with one of the testers and advised him that my own observations clearly show the average shooter loads their percussion revolver by holding it with one or two fingers in front of the discharging cylinder. I recommended in that they include ballistic gelatin in front of the cylinder to determine if the ball coming out of the cylinder would have sufficient energy to remove or damage the shooters fingers. They refused to test how much damage might be done to the personís fingers during that discharge.
I postulated that there would be enough energy to severely damage the shooters fingers and my opinions fell on deaf ears, because I had not done actual testing. The test results indicated that the ball leaves the cylinder at approximately 150 feet per second. I do not have to blow fingers off to know the lead ball traveling at 150 fps has enough energy to do severe damage to fingers. Why was that not tested?
An issue that was not specifically addressed was the potential for cap explosions during the process of installed the cap on the nipple. The possibility of donating a cap while installing it on the nipple is very real. I have personal and credible knowledge of three such incidents and have heard of others.
It happened to me one day after working on one of my guns. I had adjusted the hammer spring tension on a Pietta 1858 revolver and was preparing to fire a few caps using the hammer to verify my work. I was pressing the capital onto the nipple when it detonated. Another Cowboy Action Shooter reports significant damage to his thumb caused by an explosion while pressing the cap on a nipple. A friend of mine seriously damaged his hand in accident on a movie set while capping a percussion revolver in the normal manner. He was capping a percussion revolver that was loaded as blanks. The gun chainfired as did the caps in the capper.
In all three accidents, the caps ignited when they were not supposed to. My own accident was the only one that did not result in an injury because the chamber was not loaded. It is a fact that caps can ignite during normal handling.
Let's take a look at the fundamental risk management equation. It is the probability that the incident will occur times the severity of the damage. In actual practice a grid it is created in a simple probability is estimated on the left. The probability might be as simple as stating low, medium, or high probability. The severity of damage is noted in the next column. Again this may be as simple as low, medium, or high severity.
Several months ago I downloaded the same research cited by the editor of the Cowboy Chronicle as evidence of the safety of the new rules. I gave this it to my risk management students and asked them to evaluate the research. Acting only as a facilitator I answered a few questions the students had regarding the handling of revolvers. I must credit them for they went straight to the heart of the issue, asked relevant questions, and dismissed the SASS research as being unsound for the conclusions drawn. They determined that using a stick to seat caps was the most dangerous method and were astonished when they learned this research and been used as the basis of a rule change.
Let's look at an accident under the three scenarios. In the first scenario the person loading the firearms is practicing proper muzzle control and is seating the percussion caps using the hammer of the revolver. We can predict a higher probability of an accidental discharge.
During an accidental discharge, the bullet should go downrange into a berm with no injury to other participants. The key here is maintaining proper muzzle control. I believe that enforcing proper muzzle discipline is critical during any loading situation because any single action revolver can discharge during the loading process. Under this scenario we estimated a medium probability of an accidental discharge with a very low probability of injury.
The second scenario has the person loading the cap and ball revolver using a wooden dowel or some other instrument to seat caps with the chamber out of battery. In this scenario, the discharging cylinder is approximately 90 degrees out of battery on the right side of the revolver frame. If a cap ignites and sets off the charge in the chamber, which SASS research suggests the ball will come out of the chamber at approximately 150 fps, has a high probability of striking the shooters fingers in the first three inches of bullet travel. I predict significant damage to the hand of the shooter, which is in direct contrast to the SASS research conclusions.
Let's look and even uglier third scenario. Percussion revolver shooters are keenly aware of another phenomenon called a chain fire is most likely to occur if one of the loaded chambers is not capped. It can also be triggered when fire and sparks spray forcefully around the front of the cylinder and around the ball and into the powder.
Most chainfire accidents are the result of uncapped nipples on charged chambers. I believe it's safe to say in a cap detonation, that 20 to 80 percent of the chambers will be uncapped when an accident occurs. This creates a nonzero probability that more than one chamber will discharge during an out of battery cap ignition. Based upon my empirical observations I can estimate the severe damage will be done to someone's hand if such accident should occur because several fingers will be forward of the cylinder and some balls may not properly exit their chambers, resulting in much elevated pressure. I asked the SASS test team to evaluate this scenario, but they refused.
Such a chainfire is very unlikely when doing hammer seeking and the reason is simple; percussion caps will be the installed on nipples of the charged chambers. When hammer seating, the shooter tends to place the caps on all nipples using either finger or a capper before slowly rotating the cylinder around and using the hammer to carefully press each cap into place.
Using standard risk management evaluation techniques, my students concluded the following: hammer seating will probably result in more accidents at the loading table that will have a low consequence because of the demonstrated ability of Cowboy action shooters to maintain effective muzzle control. They further concluded that there would be fewer accidents using alternative loading practices, but those alternative capping accidents will result in significant personal injuries.
Safety tends to be a very emotional issue, especially among people who use firearms. When SASS banned the procedure of hammer seating, I put out a call asking for stories of loading table accidents. I received a large number of e-mail messages and expected to hear a lot of stories about hammer seating accidents. I was surprised that I received none. I did, however, receive a lot of letters telling me about accidents caused by people spinning the revolver cylinders to check for high primers. I found that interesting.
After monitoring the SASS Internet forum for over two years I have seen reports of many shooting accidents. I have read many reports of guns exploding in people's hands, reports of exploding magazine tubes on Henry rifles, and many reports of incidents associated with the use of progressive reloading presses. With all these incidents, some involving injuries, why is there an absence of discussions about banning these items?
The answer is actually quite simple. People have a high tolerance of risk when doing familiar things. We feel an accident will not happen to us, because we are too wise or more careful than the other person.
Let's look at another aspect of loading the percussion revolver under the SASS rules. There are several ways of seating the cap on the percussion revolver. The person can use pressure with the capper; the person can use a stick:, can use their finger, or they can use the hammer. Of all of these methods, only hammer seating uses an item intended to be in contact with the cap and designed to handle the pressures created during the explosion. Only the hammer seating method places the bullet down the barrel where it is intended to go.
Regardless of this, each shooter has an individual choice of the four methods and takes responsibility for the chosen method. When a sanctioning body removes one of those choices they accept a higher level of liability for the outcome. It is my opinion that the first person experiencing an injury under the new rules will be claiming in court the injury would not have occurred had they been allowed to use their preferred method. In addition they will have the opportunity to testify that they changed their method based upon the SASS research and believed they were operating more safely. I believe this could place a significant legal responsibility on the shoulders of SASS.
I can tell you that I decided not to get with their program long before the Cowboy Chronicle editor made his statement, because I consider out of battery discharges to be unsafe. That is the reason for converting my SASS percussion firearms to shoot cartridges. I do not complain about the new rules, but I will not live with them because I will not live with what I consider to be an unsafe practice. I have also notified a territorial governor that I will not be considered a safety officer in any event where shooters are forced to load their firearms in what I consider to be an unsafe practice. SASS made its choice and I have made mine.