1854 Volcanic fact and fancy
In 1854 Smith & Wesson patented a lever action pistol using rocket ball ammunition in .31 and .41 calibers.
There are a lot of half truths and flat out lies about these pistols
The .31 caliber No. 1 pistol shot a 53 grain Minié ball that had a muzzle velocity of 260/500-600/700 feet per second depending on who you ask and when. In 1868 S&W released the 32 short that shot a 85 grain bullet using 4.5 grains of powder and managed 550 feet per second. The contemporary 1849 percussion cap pocket pistol from Colt shot a .31 caliber 50 grain bullet using 15 grains of black powder and managed 700 feet per second for a muzzle energy of 54 pounds. Colt sold 300k of those pistols from 1849 to 1873. The reputation of the Volcanic is that it was anemic and unreliable. We’re going to assume that its action didn’t manage gas pressure as well as the cap and ball revolver did and that it came out with less power than the Colt pocket pistol.
The .41 caliber No. 2 pistol shot a 106 grain Minié ball that had a muzzle velocity of 260/500-600/700 feet per second depending on who you ask and when. What we do know is that the .41 had a 6.5 grain powder charge which puts an upper limit on how fast black powder from the 1850s could get it to move. In 1866 the Remington Double Derringer in .41 Short shot a 130 grain bullet using 13 grains of powder and got up to 425 feet per second. This would tend to make me believe the 260 fps numbers as everything over 425 seems improbable given 15 years of improvements, better gas pressure management and doubling the powder charge. There are modern replica ammunition produced for the .41 short that have gotten 532 and 621 fps on a chronograph at 10 ft from the muzzle, using the same 13 grains of powder.
The colt Pocket Pistol 1849 shot an 82 grain bullet using 15 grains of powder and achieved a lot higher velocity. This model was in continuous production from 1849 to 1873 and sold over three hundred thousand copies.
The lies and half truths
Someone ran an article about a British Army officer that repeatedly hit a bullseye with a volcanic rifle at 200 yards, Winchester’s own gunsmiths said that was not possible.
Someone ran an ad that you can load the volcanic and fire off 30 rounds in under a minute. The longest volcanic rifle had a 24 inch barrel, the tubular magazine could hold 30 rounds. The rounds can easily be dropped in the end of the tubular magazine, but that may take more than a few seconds. Firing off 30 rounds at a stationary paper target isn’t hard if you don’t care if you hit anything. This one is probably true, if you don’t have any jams or misfires.
Why do I say all this?
The Volcanic gets a lot of hype as the Volcano in Red Dead Redemption, other video games and even the card game Bang! I’m here to tell you none of it is well deserved. The Volcanic Arms company folded, Smith & Wesson went on to do better things, Henry made his famous Henry Rifle in 1860, and later upgrades became known as the Winchester 1873. The Volcanic was ahead of its time, but is not some sort of magical wonder gun.
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