Underpowered Colt .31

I’m trying to write about an 1800s outlaw who shot a policeman in the wrist, and another in the leg on two separate occasions. He had a Colt percussion .31 (among other weapons). The wrist wound only broke the skin and travelled under the skin part way around the wrist. The leg wound on the other policeman also only broke the skin, but travelled under the skin probably four or five inches.

This led me to conclude there was something wrong with the revolver. In
the case of the policeman wounded in the wrist, he later identified a
bullet made from a mould belonging to the outlaw as being ‘conical’ and
similar to the one cut from his wrist. In the later leg wound, that
policeman was killed by a longarm wound to the head, a couple of other
wounds, and the strange one to the leg, where the bullet entered under the
skin travelling around to the inner thigh. That revolver bullet was
produced in court being described as ‘conical’.

This got me to thinking that this colt .31 may have had problems with the
percussion caps or the powder. Somehow the revolver was underpowered.

I have seen photos of Colt bullet moulds and of the percussion caps. But I
don’t understand how the bullet was made up. Obviously the bullet was made in the mould, and was fired by the percussion cap, but what was the
cartridge into which powder, bullet and percussion cap were inserted?

More importantly, and this is where I need your help, could old percussion
caps, or, say, dampness or adulteration of the powder, have caused the
stange underpowered shots to both policemen?

Are there any other possible explanations?

If it’s the style revolver I’m thinking of, there would be no cartridge involved at all. These were loaded just like every other muzzle loading firearm (IE: loose components).
Damp powder, under charge of powder, fouled nipple are also possible problems.


Thanks! You’re quite right that the powder was just put in each chamber. The ball or bullet was tamped down and sealed with grease. The percussion cap was then inserted on the nipple at the rear of each of the revolver


I have a couple of observations.

First, it is not uncommon for bullets to react in ways that you would not expect. There are many recorded instances of bullets penetrating the skin and then travelling directly under the skin in all sorts of directions. Such phenomena have been documented with cartridges as powerful as 30-06. So it’s not safe to assume that such an occurance indicates an underpowered cartridge.

Second, I used to be into US Western history in a big way and even did a little writing here and there. One thing you are immediately struck with is that real life and movies and TV are two different things. Contrary to the image that TV and movies portray, the majority of firearms carried and used by the average guy (or gal) were small caliber and relatively low power. Recoil of the larger caliber revolvers and pistols was simply too much for them to tolerate. So, in the case of muzzle-loading revolvers such as the one you mentioned, it would be very common for the user to load the bare minimum powder charge, one that would very likely lack any kind of penetration.

I realize that these two comments are contradictory. Which one could explain the situations you described, I have no idea. Maybe neither.


It sounded as if you had a question about the conical bullet. In case you are not aware, the Colt molds, as well as those by most of the other percussion revolver makers, could be used to make two different shaped bullets, a round ball, and a pointed (usually) conical ball. These conical balls were also available made up into ‘cartridges’, consisting of the ball and measured charge of powder packaged in a tapered paper envelope that could be inserted in the cylinder and seated with the rammer.

I agree with Ray regarding the bullets traveling under the skin. If the bullet was able to pierce the skin, it should have been traveling fast enough to go into the muscle. However, depending on the angle that the bullet is penetrating the arm or leg, and whether or not bone is in close proximity to the point the bullet is entering, it can very easily travel under the skin rather than going deep into the appendage.

A full measure by volume of powder would give less than expected results if the powder quality was inferior. Or, if damaged by dampness or being cut with less expensive stuff to increase profits to the seller.

John, Guy & Ray,

Thank you for your contributions!

I mentioned the conical tip of the two bullets in case that may have helped them to penetrate the skin. The wrist wound (perhaps it was on the hand according to one refence I saw) could have been deflected by bone. But the thigh wound did not, and simply passed around under the skin. The logical conclusion, as pointed out by Ray and Guy, is there may have been an angle involved.

But the medical evidence for the rest of the wounds showed these struck the victim effectually, and did the damage one would expect.

What everyone seems to be suggesting is that there are many possibilities which could have caused the strange wrist and thigh wounds.

I also acknowledge Guy’s good point about the paper cartridge.

Thank you all for your expertise.

One possibility might be that the shooter involved either did not charge the chambers (caps only), thus not giving the bullet enough velocity to cause a lethal wound; I haven’t fired a percussion revolver this way, so i don’t know if the projectile would even clear the barrel. Another possibility might be that the person loading the revolver simply knew that the proper charge was supposed to be (for the sake of an example) “27 grains of powder”, so they sat down and COUNTED OUT 27 individual grains of powder. I know this has happened with more than one beginning reloader :D

I don’t think a percussion cap would cause the bullet to move even slightly within the cylinder if there was not a powder charge. The sole purpose of the cap is to ignite the powder - most of the explosive force of the cap is expended externally.

I don’t know; I’ve seen more than one squib with a cartridge firearm where the primer alone was almost enough to make the projectile clear the bore, and if the projectile in this case was either undersized or already swaged down slightly from the loading process, I don’t think it would be out of the question. But, since I haven’t tried it, I don’t know for sure.

Years ago I fired a European-made .22 BB cap in a Smith and Wesson no. 1 revolver. My would-be backstop was an issue of Time magazine pinned up against my bedroom wall. These BBs were powered only by the priming charge, and the bullet was a .22 round ball. My one and only shot at the magazine penetrated said backstop, along with a panel of 7/8 in. pine behind it. Priming as a propellant should not be dismissed out of hand. JG

I agree that priming can’t be dismissed out of hand. In the case of your .22 BB cap, the force of the priming was contained by the cartridge case and focused on expelling the ball. In the case of the percussion revolver, the cap is designed to split on firing allowing it to be easily removed from the nipple. It does not form a gas tight seal on the nipple.


I can say with certainty that a percussion cap, without powder, will push the ball out of the chamber and into the bore on my Remington 1858 revolver. I managed to leave a ball in the bore and split the barrel with a subsequent shot!


I have to say I’m surprised. Did the cap split like it was supposed to, or did you have to pry it off the nipple? I guess I need to do some testing with one of my revolvers.


I rarely have to prise caps off but cannot remember this detail in this case. The first thing that I noticed was that I couldn’t find the foresight! The bulging and splitting of the barrel tore the silver soldering and the foresight flew away, never to be seen again.


I hope that was a repro Remington revolver that you were using.

I tried this with an Italian Colt M1860 with the barrel removed, holding the cylinder in place, and much to my surprise the ball was sent out of the chamber with enough force to dent the drywall in my garage. I stand corrected - the drinks are on me, Gravelbelly.


Yes, and it is now re-barrelled and back in use.