Any writer knows that you can read about something as much as you like, but it's not until you've actually tried it out that you really understand it.
In Virginia city last year I went on a stagecoach ride. Ten minutes was enough to show me how claustrophobic and uncomfortable and even scary it would have been.
I also visited the jail and a mine. Both of them made me feel clammy and prickly and trapped.
In Death Valley I went horse riding for an afternoon. OK, an afternoon on a plodding horse is not a cattle drive like in the old Westerns, but you get the feel (and smell) of being on horseback in the west.
Some things I don't want to experience: getting shot, going down a deep mine, drinking alkali water or 'tarantula juice' (homemade mezcal), being in a real shoot out, getting scalped.
One thing about the 1860's I must know first-hand is how to load and fire a cap and ball revolver.
Until the 1870's, the majority of handguns were cap and ball. This meant you had to put all the components of a bullet in the chambers of your cylinder. Like putting the ingredients of a little meal in a pan to cook them. (All except for the cap, which is the frosting on the cake)
Luckily the main character in my new series owns a Smith & Wesson Seven-shooter model 1. This was one of the earliest guns to have a metal cartridge with the cap and ball and powder all inside.
But in Virginia City in 1862, the time my book is set, very few people were lucky enough to own a gun which took cartridges. According to Mark Twain, who was there at the time, almost everybody in wore the 'universal Navy revolver'. This popular gun was 'cap and ball'. So were the many models of Colt's Pocket Pistol. So was the bigger Colt's Army Revolver. The only difference was the size of the bullet or 'ball'.
At the Ham & Petersham Rifle & Pistol Club one Sunday, I saw why they call it a 'ball'. It really is a big metal ball.
A .22 caliber ball is tiny, about the size of a dried pea.
A .36 caliber ball is the size of a normal pea.
A .44 caliber ball is about the size of a chickpea. And it's heavy. You wouldn't want one of those to hit you.
I went with my 'research assistants' - my husband Richard and his friend Charles - on a cold February morning. The Gun Club is down a one lane dirt track by the River Thames. The parking lot is muddy. The architecture is shed-like. The interior decoration non-existent. My mother used to go to gun clubs with my grandfather in the 1930's and she says things were just the same then in California.
It is a guest day, so we pay our £10 entry and £5 for a few rounds of ammo.
They have to make us up some packs, so we sit watching Derek (top) as he assembles the components.
Big metal .44 balls. Check.
Little circular wads. Check.
Tiny round boxes of caps. Check
Where's the black powder?
'Out in the shooting range,' says Derek. 'We don't use black powder. We use something called Pyrodex. It's safer and more predictable.'
'Oh,' I say, crestfallen. 'I want the full black powder experience. The bang and the smoke.'
'You'll get the black powder experience,' says Derek. 'Don't worry.'
We collect our 'ear defenders' (no charge to borrow them) and follow Tony across the muddy parking lot to the 25 yard range where they fire cap & ball firearms. Derek and Tony and all the other helpers are members who cheerfully donate their time to help guests one Sunday a month. The gun club is a non-profit organization.
A long wooden shed - a bit like a horse's stable - has places for six shooters.
25 yards away are six targets. Behind the targets an earthen bank and a tall brick wall.
'If you aim too high', says Tony, 'You might hit a tourist in the grounds of Ham House.'
He is joking.
Richard and Charles and I are going to be using the club's guns, some replica Rogers&Spencer .44 revolvers, made in Italy.
Apparently, if you want a good working replica of a Wild West gun, that is where they make them. You can also get working replicas from places like the Dixie Gun Works.The original Rogers&Spencer revolver was manufactured in bulk for use in the Civil War, but by the time it came out the war was over. It's a few years after the date of my first book, but it will give me a good idea of how to load and fire a period firearm.
First Tony shows me how to load the Rogers&Spencer revolver.
You take a brass powder flask filled with black powder. There is a special way of filling the nozzle with exactly the right amount for a charge. You hold the flask in your right hand, with your forefinger over the open end of the nozzle and your thumb on a little lever. You push a little lever, hold the flask upside down, tap powder into the nozzle, let the lever go, turn the flask upright, remove your finger from the top of the nozzle and tip the measure of powder carefully into an empty chamber of your cylinder. Then you put down the flask. Take a disc of felt - the wad - and push it in on top of the powder. Then comes the lead ball. It is slightly too big for the chamber so you have to use the ramming rod to push it right in.
The ball needs to be big to grip the rifling in the barrels. Rifling is the term for the curved grooves that make the ball spin, for greater accuracy. So there's your lead ball, sticking out of the business-end of the chamber. Now you have to turn the cylinder and center the ball under the ramming rod (a metal rod attached to the underside of the barrel) and ram it in. This can be quite difficult to do. The ramming rod is stiff for a gal's fingers, and if you don't center it just right it doesn't work. But once you've rammed it right down, you are ready to repeat the process in the next chamber.
Once you have put a measure of powder a wad and a ball into each of the six chambers, you put the flask well out of the way.
'That powder flask is essentially a hand grenade,' says Tony cheerfully. 'One spark and it will blow up.'
I put it in a large tupperware box and press the lid down firmly.
Now for the caps. These are little copper cylinders smaller than a tic-tac. Your fingers feel big and clumsy as you try to fit six of them on the six nipples at the back of the cylinder. When the hammer of the gun strikes these copper caps, a spark ignites the power and the explosion pushes the lead ball out of the barrel at several hundred miles per hour. The wad is to stop the powder sparking and causing what is called a flashover.
A 'flashover' is where a spark from one chamber ignites the powder in all the other chambers and all six bullets go off at once. Either that, or the gun explodes.
Neither scenario is desirable.
When I had finally filled all the chambers with the required ingredients and fit the fiddly cap on the backs of each one I was FINALLY ready to try it out.
Get your stance right.
Squeeze the trigger.
A satisfyingly loud report and a slight kick upwards and sparks fly out and there is a gratifying cloud of grey fog: gunsmoke!
You have five more bullets to fire.
It is over too quickly.
Now you have to load it all over again.
Imagine doing this under enemy fire. Or with a pack of redskins whooping down on you. That would take a cool head.
No wonder there was a waiting list for Smith & Wesson's model 2 .32 revolver, with its all-in-one metal cartridge.
Here are ten fascinating things I learned at the shooting range as I tried out cap and ball and powder:
1. The bang would have been even louder in the Old West when they used at least twice the amount of powder we were using.
2. If you accidentally load an extra ball you can't turn the chamber on.
3. If you don't put in the powder the cap will push the ball into the barrel but not out of it...
4. So when you fire your next shot the barrel can explode!
5. You get powder smears on the base knuckle of your index finger.
6. You can get speckly powder burns that are like a tatoo, an expert called Dave showed me his.
7. Sometimes a little spark follows the bullet out, that is the remains of the wad.
8. You can use axle grease or bear fat instead of the wad, anything that will form a seal against sparks.
9. In the heat of battle you can dispense with the wad, but then you risk flashover.
10. In a battle, the cloud of gunsmoke would soon obscure your vision.
The best part about our morning at the Ham & Petersham Rifle & Pistol Club was when I met an expert on firearms of the 1800s. Dave let me try out his replica Winchester 66 and he also had a sweet little .22 revolver. He promised to bring his own Smith & Wesson seven-shooters the next time we meet!
Watch this space...
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