My Uncle Jim passed away last year and left me his guns and tools. Among these was a ‘sporterized’ M1938 7.35mm Carcano rifle of the type that used to sell by mail-order for about $5 before the GCA68. It was un ugly rifle, and standing in a corner unattended for forty years had not improved it.
This is perhaps the least desirable of collectible military surplus rifles, and this one was in miserable shape. Worth about $80 retail it’s not really worth the effort of selling it. On the bright side the bore and action are good, and he left me quite a lot of ammunition packed in the rare and hard-to-find clips. There’s a mix of military ball ammo and soft-points, and by all accounts these are a decent 100-150 yard deer rifle. So… what to do…
I’ve always fancied a Mannlicher carbine, and I’ve taken up gunsmithing as a hobby- why not turn the ugly rifle into one? Deciding to do so and actually doing it were too different things, not the least because a decent piece of wood was going to run a $100. For an $80 rifle? Yeah, not high on my list of priorities.
As fate would have it a friend dropped off a whonking-big chunk of Walnut, thinking I could use it for knife-handles. I told him, ‘Not so much, but I have this project…’ He was cool with that, so now I had the wood. Now it takes a pretty long piece of wood to make a Mannlicher carbine, and the standard stock was a bit short for my manly frame, so I wanted to extend the reach from the trigger. To make the most of the wood- and because of my addiction to ‘snubbies,’ I trimmed the barrel down to 16-1/2 inches (a half inch longer than the legal minimum for rifle barrels) and re-crowned it. Then I make up a rough outline of the stock I wanted and sawed it out.
Longer than it needed to be, but it’s a lot easier to make it shorter than it is to make it longer. later in the week I took and evening to mill out the slot for the magazine/trigger housing. I used my Uncle Jim’s old Craftsman drill press for this with a 3/8 inch mill.
Then I milled in the magazine slot. The drill press isn’t really designed for this, but with the Shop Fox milling vice and a little care it got done. Not perfect but a pretty decent fit.
The next evening it was time to inlet the action. Aside from milling the ‘tang’ slot the drill press wasn’t really set up for this, and wouldn’t really do the job. As luck would have it among the huge quantity of tools Uncle Jim left me there were a lot of wood-chisels, gouges and carving tools. I sharpened them all up and set to work.
It’s not as hard as you’d think, but it’s plenty hard enough. I mounted the smallest contact wheel on the belt-grinder and cleaned up the barrel channel. I’t set up so that the barrel floats from the rear-sight block to the muzzle. It took hours, and since it uses different muscles than I usually employ in my work it made me stiff and sore as hell. The end result was worth it, though.
Then is was time to take the wood to the belt-grinder for shaping. The Butt is offset to the left to give a nice palm-swell, and of course it’s shaped and fitted to my hand. Then I went after it with the orbital sander and took it up to 400 grit. It took a little fussing and fitting, but I was pleased with the result.
Friday afternoon I knocked off work at 2:30 and decided to deal with the front sight. I grabbed a piece of 1/2″ mild steel stock and went to work with the grinder. After the basic shape was done I filed the bottom to match the contour of the barrel. of course I couldn’t mount the sight until I refinished the barrel… basically the steel was all dark, dull and pitted from years of neglect in a coastal town, and the salt air had not been kind to it.
The cut-off end of the barrel shows what the condition of the metal was like throughout. I took it to the buffer with some Black Stainless rouge, and after an hour or so things were looking better. I soldered on the new front sight and treated it with Birchwood Casey Perma-Blue. Big improvement!
The original sight was drift-adjustable and was off the the left a good bit, so I soldered the new sight slightly canted to mimic it’s original position. Of course I have no idea it that’s right, but I can always use a little heat to move the sight if needed.
I’b been planning to do an oil finish, but about this time I noticed that the raw wood was picking up oils from my hands, random drops of sweat etc. Can’t have that! As a temporary measure I re-sanded it and applied a hand-rubbed Carnauba Wax finish. It looked so good I applied more coats and kept after it. I may actually stick with this finish!
Saturday night I was feeling a bit restless, so I decided to address the butt-plate. I fabricated one from half-inch mild steel, finished it to 400 grit with an orbital sander and blued it. Nice. It adds a bit of weight to the gun, but it brings that balance to right where I wanted it. So the gun is now effectively finished until I get a nice piece of horn for the tip under the muzzle, and I’ll likely add sling swivels at some point too.
The end result is a 38 inch overall length, a 15 inch reach from the trigger to the butt (I’m a big guy,) it balances perfectly in my hands, and makes a handy ‘brush gun.’ It’s pretty, too, if I do say so myself. I’ve now made my first-ever rifle stock, too. It won’t be the last, either. So- Uncle Jim’s tools help me turn his old gun into something that is now very special to me, and I think a fitting tribute to him. I think he would approve.
Now to get out to the range…
Yep, there are people that do. Seriously. Here in the 21st Century where carrying any revolver for self defense can get you funny looks there are still people that carry single-action revolvers. Not just a .44 Magnum Blackhawk for defense against bears while hiking, or for hunting where you might expect to see it either. As an EDC. Crazy, huh?
Single action revolvers require you to manually cock the hammer for each shot- but in return you get a short, crisp, light trigger pull which promotes greater accuracy. It also promotes greater likelihood of an unintentional discharge, but that’s nothing that can’t be moderated by training. Modern single-action revolvers can also carry all six chambers loaded with virtually no chance of an accidental discharge if the gun is dropped, so there’s another plus. These guns also generally come in potent calibers like .357 Magnum or .45 Colt. Most of these guns are pretty large, but no more so than a lot of modern ‘combat’ revolvers. Easy enough to carry if you are a large person, and many guns like the Ruger Vaquero or Cimarron Thunderer are available with ‘Bird’s-head’ handles for easier concealment. If you need a smaller gun Cimarron offers their ‘Lightning‘ model with a scaled-down frame and cylinder in calibers from .22LR to .38 Special, even .41 Colt if you are so inclined. With a 3-1/2 inch barrel it’s a pretty handy package.
These guns arguably require extra training, but that’s not a huge issue. So what’s the problem? In a word, reloading. Almost all modern single-action revolvers are slow as hell to reload. You open the loading gate and use the ejector to kick the shells out one at a time, then replace them one at a time. On the range this is no big deal, but if you need to reload in the middle of a fight? Ouch. There is a reason why 19th Century Lawmen and Gunfighters often carried several guns.
OK, yes- there are S&W top-break replicas that auto-eject the shells, and these can be reloaded as quickly as a modern revolver. They are large compared many modern revolvers and are very expensive; I don’t know anyone that carries one as an EDC.
The argument that many make for guns like the J-frame S&W for self defense is that civilian self-defense shootings almost never require more than 2-3 shots, and it’s a valid argument. The odds of a civilian getting into a protracted firefight are almost nil, and a reload is unlikely to be needed. That’s fine, but if you do need to a modern double-action revolver can be reloaded in 4-5 seconds with a bit of practice. In a Colt Style single-action (which is what we’re really talking about here) a reload will take maybe 30 seconds. That’s a lifetime in a gunfight… if you’re lucky. So why carry a Single Action as an everyday EDC?
Most people that do this carry them because they like them. They find them comfortable and familiar. They are confident in their ability to put shots where they want them. Yeah, they might be better off developing that level of skill and comfort with a modern firearm, but they just don’t care enough to bother. And lets face it, someone points a Peacemaker at you and thumbs back the hammer they are going to get your undivided attention! These things are pretty scary looking from the receiving end. I’ll tell you this, I’m a lot more likely to be scared of a gray-haired old man with a Ruger Blackhawk than I will be of a gang-banger with a generic 9mm; he’s a hell of a lot more likely to know how to use it!
Then there are the people who just think they are cool, or macho or romantic. The feeling of connection to the ‘wild-west’ gunslinger of old makes them feel good. But like the song says, these guns ‘could get you into trouble but they couldn’t get you out’ unless you are very good indeed.
So is there any good, rational reason someone might use one of these guns for EDC? Surprisingly there is. Some people can’t manage the double-action pull of a modern revolver, and/or have trouble working the slide of a semi-auto. Given that any gun is better than no gun such people might find a single-action revolver, particularly a small frame gun like the Ruger Bearcat or Single-Six, or the Cimarron Lightning might work for them. For these people even an inexpensive single-action .22 like the Heritage Rough Rider is better than being unarmed. Let’s face it, the thing any defensive firearm absolutely must do is go bang when you pull the trigger, and if you can only spend $125 on a defensive gun a Rough Rider is a lot more likely to be reliable than anything else you can get for the money.
I have carried Single-Action revolvers. Mostly when hunting, but occasionally as a defensive carry gun- usually because it was the best I had on hand at the time. Honestly for most EDC I would not feel tragically under-armed with a 3-1/2 inch Cimarron Thunderer or ‘birds-head’ Vaquero in .45 ACP. Would it be my first choice? Probably not. That doesn’t mean I will make fun of you if you choose to. OK, I’m lying, I will. In a good-natured way at least.
In the mid-19th Century a fellow named Rollin White came up with an idea- bore a revolver cylinder all the way through so you could load metallic cartridges from the rear. S&W saw the virtue in this and procured rights to the patent- giving them exclusive use of the concept (in America, at least) until 1869.
Colt, then the largest manufacturer of revolvers, had originally scoffed at the idea. Their front-loading cap-and-ball revolvers were doing well, after all. Why would people switch from their tried-and-true to this new-fangled technology?
This turned out to be a big mistake, and Colt and other revolver companies made several attempts, none successful, to circumvent this patent. As you can imagine by the time the patent expired Colt was eager to enter the market with their own cartridge revolvers. Yet by some monumental screw-up they did not have a gun ready and waiting when the patent expired. They also had huge stocks of parts for their cap-and-ball revolvers. So they did the obvious thing- they manufactured cap-and-ball guns suitably modified to fire metallic cartridges.
To do this they cut away the back of the cylinder where the nipples for percussion caps were normally placed, bored them straight through at a uniform diameter and built a breech-plate with a loading gate to place behind the cylinder. Voila! Instant cartridge revolver.
These were originally made with 1851 Navy frames and barrels and chambered in .38CFC, a short cartridge with a heeled bullet. There were a number of variations, and eventually conversions of Army revolvers as well as a purpose-built open top revolver based on the old-style frame.
These guns remained popular long after the introduction of Colt’s Single-Action Army revolver, which was mechanically quite similar to their early guns but enclosed the cylinder in a solid-frame. Part of the reason for this was price- a Richards-Mason Colt could be purchased for about $5 whereas the new SAA cost $25. For a modest fee Colt would also convert a customer’s cap-and-ball gun for cartridges. Remington also jumped on the bandwagon and offered their own, arguably superior, cartridge conversion revolvers.
These guns largely vanished into obscurity, known mostly to fans of spaghetti westerns and arms historians. Then awhile back some gunsmiths started offering conversions for cap-and-ball reproductions. Two companies currently offer conversion kits for Pietta and Uberti cap-and-ball revolvers.
Howell (http://www.howelloldwestconversions.com/shop/products.cfm?catid=261) offers two types of conversions. The first type consists of a cylinder and base-plate with individual firing-pins for each chamber. To load these the cylinder must be removed from the gun, the baseplate removed from the cylinder and the chambers loaded, then the base-plate is replaced and the cylinder reinstalled in the gun. The process is cumbersome, but does allow one to switch back-and-forth between cap-and-ball or cartridges and requires no modification of the firearm.
Howell’s second type of conversion permanently converts the revolver to fire cartridges, and is very similar to the original Colt or Remington conversions. These do require some metal-working capability, and Howell offers fixtures to help with this. Essentially it involves boring and tapping some holes in the breech-face and relieving the blast-shield behind the loading gate to allow cartridges to be inserted.
Kirst (http://www.kirstkonverter.com) also offers a cartridge conversion kit that is almost a drop-in conversion. It still requires that the blast-shield be relieved behind the loading gate, but this is easily done with fairly basic tools.
Both of these companies offer proven products that function well, but there are limitations. First is that the cylinders are too short for some modern ammunition; care must be taken to select or reload your own ammunition that is short enough to fit in the cylinder. Also Navy caliber revolvers (.36) fire bullets slightly larger in diameter than a modern .38 Special uses. Generally these conversions are chambered for .38 Colt, which is pretty expensive ammunition if you don’t reload your own. You may be able to shoot commercially loaded .38 Special Hollow-base wadcutters in them; the overall length is short enough and the hollow-base of the bullet will expand to fill the bore properly.
Another limitation is a function of the construction of cap-and-ball reproductions. Revolvers have what is known as a ‘forcing cone’ at the base of the barrel to guide the projectile from the cylinder into the rifled bore of the barrel. In modern revolvers the forcing cone is tempered steel, and thus can use any modern jacketed ammunition that the gun is rated for. But on cap-and-ball revolvers the forcing cone is not tempered, and firing high-pressure ammunition or jacketed bullets can split the forcing cone, ruining the barrel and rendering the gun unsafe to fire. Guns outfitted with these conversion should use lead bullets only, in low-pressure loadings that do not exceed 1000 fps at the muzzle.
Lastly these conversions are for steel-framed guns only- mounting one in a brass-framed gun is dangerous and should not be done.
Legally in most jurisdictions in the US cap-and-ball revolvers are not considered firearms. Once you convert it to fire cartridges this may change, and my change the rules under which the gun may be sold or transferred. The simple remedy for this is to dismount the conversion and fit the original cylinder to the gun and include the conversion parts in the sale. In some states it is illegal to do this conversion; check your local laws before investing in a cartridge conversion!
The use of obsolete cartridges, lead bullets only etc. can limit the appeal of these guns, especially for folks that don’t reload their own ammunition. But have no fear- Cimarron Firearms (http://cimarron-firearms.com) offers factory-made cartridge-conversion guns in calibers like .38 Special and .45 Colt, as well as a variety of ‘western’ calibers. These guns do vary a bit dimensionally from the originals; the cylinders need to be long enough for the modern loadings, and they are a bit more robust to accommodate the pressures of current ammunition. You can use jacketed ammunition in these guns without fear, though use of +P ammunition will dramatically accelerate wear on these, particularly the open-top style guns. They should be fired with standard-pressure loads only.
Years ago my wife bought me one of these, a Cimmaron .38 Special Richards-Mason 1851 Navy conversion with a 7-1/2 inch barrel. It’s a well-made gun, and after I made a cross-draw holster it was my constant companion when hunting. Despite it’s rudimentary sights it was accurate and a real pleasure to shoot. For some time it was my ambition to purchase another and convert it to a ‘belly-gun’ by shortening the barrel and converting the handle to a ‘bird’s head’ profile. Eventually I did the conversion on the original gun (see picture at top) and it has become my favorite revolver. Still a pleasure to shoot and as accurate as before (I improved the sights) but much handier. My wife Linda always found the gun too heavy with it’s long barrel, now loves to shoot it as well.
It is a bit more of a problem to reload since it no longer has an ejector, but until it gets quite dirty spent shells fall free with a tap on the cylinder, and I’ve never had one get so stuck that I could not flick it out with a fingernail.
One last thing- these guns are not modern firearms! It may not be safe to carry them fully loaded with six rounds. Leave an empty chamber under the hammer, just as you would with a Single-Action Army or other period/reproduction revolver.
If you are a Cowboy Action Shooting competitor, a history buff or just want a ‘cowboy gun’ that is a little different these guns are a cool option to a Single-Action Army or their numerous clones and near-clones.