The plan was to chamber the reworked and lined cylinder in .38 Special and reline the bore of whatever gun it ends up in to match. I felt no particular urgency about this; after all I already have a Richards-Mason conversion in .38 Special.
Saturday I was visiting my buddy Ernie; he had some .44 Special brass for me for another project, and of course he had to catch me up on what he’d been doing. In the course of this we were discussing chamber reamers and other tools and it hit me- the barrel-liner Linda bought me from Numerich Arms was labelled ‘9mm/.38/.357. My friend just happened to have a 9mm chamber reamer… Why yes, he would be happy to loan it to me.
Saturday was busy and today we were away all day. Tonight was the season-ending episode of Game of Thrones, and after we watched it I was raring to go. Fearing that tomorrow I would be distracted from paying work I went into the shop to bore the cylinder for 9mm. I set up the drill press carefully and selected an appropriate speed for the reamer and got starting. A few minutes and plenty of cutting fluid later the first chamber was reamed. I set the plunge of the drill-press based on that chamber and did the remaining five. In about 45 minutes I had a 9mm cylinder for a Pietta revolver!
Since I am making the back-plate myself and get to choose the thickness of it I reamed the chambers so the cartridge bases would be flush with the back of the cylinder.
I’m not going to be an idiot about this; I really don’t know how strong the relined chambers are. I reload 9mm so I am going to start with very light loads and work my way up. The goal will be to wind up with a standard-pressure load that will cycle our 9mm semi-autos without being anywhere near ‘hot.’ I am not going to trust it to handle +P ammunition. Once the breech-plate and firing pin are in place I plan to drill small, shallow holes between the rims so the cylinder can be set between chambers to allow the gun to be carried hammer-down safely with all six chambers loaded.
This is the first time I’ve used a proper chamber-reamer, but the Brownell’s finishing reamer worked a treat. I’m very pleased with the progress on this project! I still have four inches of liner ready to go to sleeve the barrel. Now all I need is a Pietta .44 donor gun to work on the next stages.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 August 17
We’re all gun enthusiasts here, but most of us aren’t into every conceivable sort of gun, hunting or shooting sport. You can be forgiven if you don’t understand or have misconceptions; I am not trying to talk down to anyone here, just educate.
First let’s talk about gunpowder. If there isn’t enough for the volume behind the bullet dangerous conditions can occur. Normally gunpowder ignites from the rear and combustion progresses from back to front, allowing pressure to build gradually and fairly uniformly. Whether it’s black powder or smokeless it’s pretty much the same. But if there is too much room behind the bullet you can get flashover. This is when the fire of ignition passes over the powder and ignites a much greater percentage of the powder much more quickly, causing pressure to spike almost instantly and sometimes reach unsafe levels. This is called ‘detonation’ and it can cause the cylinder to fail. Steel is tough, but it has elastic limits, which includes how fast it can expand or resist pressure. How bad this is likely to be depends on how fast-burning the powder is; Black powder burns super-fast (if inefficiently) but in smokeless powders it’s the slow-burners that will get you.
This is more of a danger with Black Powder because black powder is classified as an explosive. This means it ignites very easily and burns very, very fast. This is why you always use a compressed load of black powder; either by using enough powder that you need to compress it by seating the bullet or by using a filler to insure that the powder is under compression. While it is rare with modern metallic cartridges and smokeless powder it can still happen, particularly with small loads of slow-burning powders in (relatively) large cases.
This leads to another issue; many people feel it is unsafe to use smokeless powder in cartridges designed for black powder firearms. It is and it isn’t, so let’s talk about that. Black powder is pretty inefficient stuff. It takes a lot of it to produce a desirable velocity. This means that cartridge cases tended to be just the right size so you could load the proper volume of powder and compress it. Smokeless powders are much more efficient so a lot less of them is used. The thing is that black powder is loaded by volume and smokeless powders are loaded by weight, and this distinction was lost on many reloaders at the dawn of the smokeless era. If you made the mistake of measuring smokeless powder by volume you were probably going to blow up your gun.
When the transition to smokeless powder was made they formulated loads that worked in existing guns. I hear concerns about the excessive pressure and how fast the pressure builds with smokeless powders, but if you use the correct amount of powder this isn’t an issue. Use the correct smaller amount and you’ll get the same pressure as black powder, and pressure is what provides propulsive force. As to how fast that pressure builds no smokeless powder I am aware of burns as fast as black powder, but that does not mean they don’t build up pressure as fast or faster, so caution is called for. They are after all much, much more efficient than black powder. Many of the same powders that were used at the time when they were transitioning to smokeless are still readily available and can be a good place to start. Unique, for example, has proven a good smokeless powder for many black powder cartridges. Red Dot functions well in cases with a smaller capacity, like .32 S&W. Red Dot was scientifically tested a while back, and it has a nearly identical chamber and down-bore pressures as black powder. Of course you use a lot less of it.
The condition and safety of the gun is paramount, not which flavor of propellant you use. Of course any antique firearm should be thoroughly examined by a gunsmith or other qualified person before being fired, and if you value your old guns you’ll keep to mild loads to avoid accelerated wear.
In no small part because of Cowboy Action Shooting all styles of Western-style single-action revolvers have been enjoying a renaissance, including cartridge-conversion guns. With the expiration of S&Ws monopoly on bored-through cylinders Colt was eager to get into the game. They also had literally tons of parts for their cap-and-ball guns, so they did what gunsmiths had already been doing for a few years- they built cap-and-ball guns modified to fire cartridges. There was just enough room to bore through the cylinder of a .44 for a modestly powered cartridge, and shortly thereafter they produced the open-top, which was a purpose built gun rather than a conversion, though it used some components from the earlier guns.
These guns remained popular long after the introduction of the 1873 Single Action Army, in no small part because of the price. A Peacemaker would run you $25, but a Richards-Mason navy conversion revolver would only set you back $5.
There are two ways to get a cartridge-conversion revolver. Nowadays both Taylors and Cimarron offer reproductions of these guns made by Pietta and Uberti in Italy. These are modern, new production firearms and carry no restrictions as to ammunition. They ought to be safe with any standard-pressure ammunition in their caliber, though it would be wise to refrain from using +P ammunition, which will accelerate wear; the open-top frame isn’t the strongest of designs.
The other way to get one is to purchase a cartridge conversion from Kirst or Howells. Both are available as either a replacement cylinder or a gated conversion that requires modification to the frame of the gun. Cap-and-ball revolvers are not made to the same standards as modern cartridge revolvers, but the metallurgy is doubtless at least as good and probably better than the originals. Both Kirst and Howell’s recommend low-pressure ‘cowboy’ loads with lead bullets only. This isn’t because you are likely to blow up the cylinders; these are well constructed modern products. The concern is accelerated wear; quality of reproduction revolvers can vary- best to err on the side of caution.
Both manufacturers state that you should not mount their conversion cylinders in brass-framed revolvers. Most knowledgeable shooters recommend shooting modest loads in these guns, and this is for the same reason that the cylinder manufacturers say not to use them. Brass is much softer than iron or steel, and heavier loads will stretch the frame over time and render the revolver inoperative; sooner or later the frame will stretch enough that the hammer will no longer strike the cap with sufficient force to ignite them, and this is hard to fix. Again, the danger is not so much that the gun will blow up; after all the parts that contain the pressure of firing are steel. It’s the parts that hold them together are the weak link.
Do your own research, educate yourself and proceed with caution and intelligence. There’s a lot of fun to be had with cap-and-ball guns, conversions and antique firearms. With a little common-sense you can have that fun safely- and for a long time.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 20 August 2017
Having just competed The Outlaw I was left with a cap-and-ball cylinder I had no use for and a metal lathe that was doing nothing particular at that moment. Hmmm… I wonder if I can bore this out to shoot the original .44 Colt?* I pulled the nipples, chucked up the cylinder and turned down the back around the ratchet so it would fit the gated ring that came with the Kirst Konverter. Well, that’s what I meant to do… It actually came out a bit small. No matter, I can always make a pass-through breech plate.
Rummaging around in Uncle Jim’s tool box I came up with a .450 drill bit. I set up the milling vice in the drill press, grabbed the cutting fluid and away I went. No real issues drilling out the soft steel cylinder- until I discovered it had broken through the base of the cylinder lock notch.
Oh dear… well, nothing ventured, nothing gained and it’s not like I was going to use it… Fast forward to this morning. We had electricians running power in for the milling machine (finally!) so I was very limited in what sort of work I could do. I finished the few odds and ends I could manage without interfering with the workers and had a smoke while I contemplated what to do next. My eye fell on the ruined cylinder and something occurred to me- while I couldn’t cut chambers for .44 Colt that wasn’t the only caliber in the world. As it happened there was 16″ of .357 barrel-liner lying on the bench that I had been wondering what to do with. A barrel liner that just happened to have a nominal outside diameter of .444″.
The drill press wouldn’t produce dust and since it is in the corner opposite where the electricians were working I could see no reason not to bore out another chamber or five. Thirty minutes and a half-cup of cutting fluid later all six chambers were bored through, and yep-every one of them broke through the locking notch. No matter. Off to the bandsaw (which was only a little bit in the way) to cut a two-inch section of barrel-liner. With the help of a handy hammer and an immoderate amount of pounding I was able to get the liner into one of the chambers.
Success! I trimmed off the excess and repeated the process five more times. Now I had a cylinder with six lined chambers. Uh… rifled chambers. Yeah, that’s not right. Back to the drill-press. I bored all six chambers with a .355″ drill, dressed the front of the cylinder and with some judicious filing got the back fixed up. Sweat in some silver solder, dress the back of the cylinder and it’ll ready for the chamber reamer!
OK, some of those holes aren’t perfectly straight, which was some concern to me until I measure a couple of cylinders I have lying around and found they were pretty damn close to what the factory produced. Certainly they will line up with the forcing cone well enough, and I happen to have a buddy with a forcing-cone reamer who lives nearby.
Those of you acquainted with basic math will note that I still have 4″ of barrel liner left, so if I happen across a Pietta .44 or .36 yearning to be a short-barreled cartridge conversion I’m all set. Next I need to make the base-plate. This will have a simple pass-through rather than an actual gate. No point in pushing it… this time.
*Modern .44 Colt uses a .429 diameter bullet and will not work in a .44 cartridge conversion. Like the originals .44 C&B reproductions are actually .45 Caliber with a .451-.454 bore. The original .44 Colt used a .451 heeled bullet with the same outside diameter at the front as the cartridge case and a .430 heeled base. Sort of like a .22 on steroids.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 18 August 2017
I posted Phase 1 of this build several months ago, but I thought I’d save you the trouble of looking it up so I’ve included that post in this one.
The starting point for this conversion is a Pietta 1851 Navy Colt reproduction fitted with a .44-caliber cylinder and barrel. I’m not sure this is something that ever existed in history, but that’s OK. This gun is old and well-used. Most of the color-case hardening is worn away and there are nick and scratches indicative of long use. While there is fine pitting throughout the bore the rifling is strong, so I am not overly concerned on that point.
This is the gun in its original form- 7-1/2″ barrel, loading lever, full ‘plow-handle’ grip. I looked at a number of concepts ranging from a full-length ‘steampunk’ version of the gun to a very snub-nosed ‘Avenging Angel.’ What I settle on eventually was a reshaped handle and a relatively short but not ‘snub-nosed’ barrel. I settled on a length of 3-1/2″ because that’s the shortest practical length if I decide to add an ejector to the gun after it’s converted to fire metallic cartridges.
To go with the shorter barrel I wanted a more compact handle and the go-to shape for guns of this type is the ‘bird’s head.’ Frankly Ive done that a few times already, and was looking for something else. Thinking of N-Frame S&Ws fitted with K-frame grips it occurred to me- what if I grafted the grip of an 1849 onto the 1851 frame? OK, it won’t work- not to mention that I don’t have an 1849 grip frame lying around. But I could approximate the size of an 1849 grip-frame.
To start with I removed the one-piece walnut grip and the bottom retention screw, then squeezed gently to narrow the width of the grip until it approximated an 1849 grip. This left approximately 1/4″ of the back-strap protruding from the bottom front of the grip. I drilled a new screw hole, threaded the screw in and cut off the excess. I also ground a bit away at the bottom front of the handle to eliminate some of the ‘hook’ in the original grip. For esthetic reasons I rounded the bottom of the frame a bit as shown below-
So, now I had my grip-frame. Now for the grips… I cheated of course. I cut the single-piece stock grip into two pieces and ground them flat on the bottom to make two grips. I’ll tell the story with pictures and captions for a bit:
I could have simply reinserted the loading-lever screw, but this looked clunky to me and lacked intention, so it was back to the Bader for some judicious reshaping. The result was much more complete and purposeful looking:
At this point I detail-stripped the pistol; quite a bit of gunk around the innards, which I cleaned off and oiled the parts. The color-case hardening was worn and in bad shape, so I polished the frame and cylinder. The barrel, cylinder and frame were the immersed in Van’s Instant Blue for several minutes, then removed and thoroughly hosed down with WD40.
After a good soak I cleaned off the excess oil and thoroughly buffed them vigorously with paper towels. Time for a front-sight, and I planed a simple post like the pistol originally had.
I drilled a 1/8″ hole approximately 3/32″ deep in the tip of the barrel, and returning to the workbench I used a 1/16″ burr in the flex-shaft tool to undercut the edges of the hole so the bottom was wider than the top. I inserted a short section of 1/8″ brass rod and hammered it into place. The caused the base of the peg to expand into the undercut section of the hole, essentially forming a blind rivet. I then trimmed the post to my best guess at the correct height and buffed if to remove the corners. I ground a slight ‘swoop’ a few hundredths deep in the top of the barrel on a whim, leaving the front sight on a slightly raised ‘platform’ and re-blued it without polishing so that the top of the barrel is less reflective than the polished surfaces. Using a round needle-file I enlarged the rear-sight (the tip of the hammer, actually) to a good size to work with the post.
Time to reassemble the essentially finished gun. I find the ergonomics and balance quite delightful; the gun is eminently point-able and comfortable in my hand. It feels much lighter and handier than it did in its original form, though at 32oz. it’s still not exactly a light-weight. A good thing, that; .45 Colt isn’t exactly a powderpuff, even with loads limited to less than 1000 fps.
The above was posted back in April and it’s now August. Last Thursday the Gated Kirst Konverter arrived, and I immediately mounted it.
I had to shorten the forcing cone slightly, but that was the work of seconds. Once that was set it was time to address the loading-groove in the frame. On the Remington converter Kirst specified using a 5/8″ sanding drum on a Dremel tool, but I have a 5/8″ contact wheel for my Bader BIII belt grinder. Much quicker! I ground first with a 60-grit belt, then used a 400-grit to clean it up. I applied Van’s Instant Blue to the hot metal and it took very nicely-
After carefully de-burring where the cylinder’s pawl is exposed I fitted the new conversion. It works a treat except…
The converter ring can move very slightly sideways when the gate is open, and this causes the cylinder to bind if you aren’t careful. If you bear that in mind it’s still easy to make things work for loading and unloading, but it’s a little disappointing. I think I have a fix for it however, so it’s not a big deal.
The standard load for .45 Colt has an overall length of 1.6″, but this cylinder is shorter than a normal cylinder and they recommend loading to 1.58″ to allow the cylinder to rotate freely. I used my usual load, a 200gr. LRNFP over 9.0 gr. of Unique with a CCI300 primer, but I loaded them to an overall length of 1.45″. Yes, I could have used Schofield brass, but why when I have all of this .45 Colt brass lying around?
With the gun finished and ammo on-hand it was time to try it out with a quick trip to Champion Arms indoor range. Recoil is sharpish but it doesn’t beat you up. The shape of the modified grip-frame works a treat at managing the recoil. Here’s footage of me shooting at ten yards, followed by the target:
As you can see in the video muzzle-flip isn’t excessive, and accuracy is fine. The only issue is that after 75 rounds or so the loading-gate hinge-screw backed out enough to block the cylinder from turning. Easy fix- pop the wedge, remover the converter and tighten the screw, but I called it a day and headed home where I had better tools. Needs some Loctite, obviously.
I really enjoy shooting this gun and am quite happy with how it has come out. I originally contemplated fitting an ejector but generally the brass will fall free with a little coaxing, and using a cleaning rod to clear the empties is no problem. Speed reloads was never going to be a thing with this gun anyway…
So, is it finished? Well, yes and no. See, I now had this cap-and-ball cylinder that I don’t need, and I have a metal-lathe…
I’ve removed the nipples and turned down the back of the cylinder to work with the Converter ring, and plan to bore-through the cylinders for .450 Adams (if there is enough room for the cartridge) or .44 Colt (Original, using heeled bullets) if there isn’t. Needless to say if this works I will be very cautious about working up loads for it…
I turned the back down a little too much, so likely I’ll make my own backplate with a loading slot but no gate. If it works I’ll have two converters for this gun- or a spare converter for another gun…
Naturally I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 14 august 2017
Linda and I made the weekly pilgrimage to Champion Arms but this week we had a purpose- for Linda to test-fire four guns and pick a favorite. She got to shoot the Chiappa Rhino, her Kahr E9, the Para-Ordinance LDA .45 and her newest, a Taurus PT738 .380 side-by-side. It was the first time out of the gate for the Taurus and she was eager to try it.
The Taurus is a very small, flat gun weighing only 12 ounces fully loaded. It’s 5-1/4 inches long by 3-5/8″ tall including the magazine base, which forms an integral part of the handle. The gun fires from a locked breech and has a six-round magazine.
A lot of small .380s can be rather snappy to shoot but the Taurus, while it has a lot of muzzle-flip, doesn’t beat you up. With factory ammunition it was 100% reliable in my hands, but Linda had some issues, which increased the longer she shot. The gun would occasionally either fail to strip the next round from the magazine or fail to fully come into battery. Since I didn’t have any similar problems I think she is having issues with grip sensitivity. She’s going to work on her hand strength, and I am pretty sure this and practice will solve the problem.
My first .380 ACP hand-loads did not fare so well; I erred on the side of caution on the powder charge and they were just a bit too wimpy to cycle reliably. Live and learn, I guess.
Linda had no trouble at all keeping her shots on the paper at seven yards, as you can see-
Next up was the Chiappa Rhino. Linda adores this gun and has a ball shooting it. She found it very pleasant to shoot with my wadcutter hand-loads. Factory Fiochi 125 FMCFPs were a little stout for her, but she is sure she will get used to it in time… in fact she’s eager to try it with some .357 Magnum loads!
I did a bit of shooting with the Chiappa myself. When I originally tested this gun I found it shot quite low at seven yards, but I have since discovered that it was me. It’s a weird gun, and not just because the barrel is in the ‘wrong’ place. I’ve found that the faster I pull the trigger the more accurate it is! Like I said, weird- but very, very good. I bent the range rules rather a lot to shoot this seven-yard rapid-fire group at a rate of two shots per second-
I also tried a double-action group at twenty-five yards- not spectacular but not tragic for a 2″ barreled gun. I’ll keep practicing…
Linda also enjoyed shooting the LDA .45 and her Kahr, but then she always does. The Kahr remains her favorite- by a narrow margin- but the others? She can’t choose.
I also tried a new load for the S&W .32 Double Action snubby. This is more like it! The muzzle-blast cracks instead of phfarts and the holes in the target are much cleaner. There’s bit of authority to these rounds, but they are only slightly snappier than Remington factory loads. I like them a lot- these are going to be my new standard loads for this pistol. Seven yards, rapid-fire-
This is a fun little gun, but it’s not an easy gun to shoot until you get used to it. Oddly I tried the gun single action, and I can actually shoot it more accurately double action. I guess it’s just what I am used to.
The successful loads used this evening were:
.38 Special- 148gr. BBWC on top of 3.3gr. of Unique
.32 S&W- 96gr. LRN-FP on top of 2gr. of Red Dot
9x19mm- 125gr. LRN-FP on top of 4.3gr. of Red Dot
.45 ACP- 200gr. LRN-FP on top of 5.3gr. of Unique. This load was a very good soft-shooting target round that functioned perfectly in the LDA.
All loads use CCI primers.
We had a great time, and I am glad that Linda is coming with me regularly now. Reloading my own ammo has made a huge difference- when we had to spring for factory ammunition it was hard to afford for us both to shoot.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 09 Aug 17