A Good Week for Cartridge Conversions

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This week I finally finished ‘The Cherub.’ This was an unidentified unfinished gun when I got it. It was full assembled, but many of the parts were ‘as cast’ and only the internal parts were finished at all. It was also missing it’s locking-bolt.  I had the impression that it was bought as a kit and thrown together without any effort to finish it. This is the gun as I first saw it-

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I’ve covered the details before so I’ll stick to general comments here. This project took some serious gunsmithing! First I had to replace the locking bolt- with no idea who manufactured the gun. The gun had no manufacturer’s marks or proof marks of any kind, but I eventually decided it was probably an Armi San Marcos. Naturally the part wasn’t available, so I got an Uberti part and fussed with it until it worked. This process continued throughout the time I was making other modifications to the gun and ended  yesterday.

Oddly turning down, boring through and lining the cylinder was very straightforward. Likewise shortening and reshaping the barrel, fitting the wood grips etc. presented no novel issues. But the timing? Oh yeah… headaches galore.  Take the gun apart, make a change, reassemble, test, swear. Repeat until you lock yourself in a dark room and cry forever.  Well, for a long time anyway. Pro Tip- start with a gun that already works!

The Breechplate presented it’s own issues, most of which relate directly to the fact that the milling machine is still not up and running. In the end there was nothing insurmountable. The firing pin was also problematic, mainly because I wanted a rebounding firing pin, and there really wasn’t room for the spring. Finally I just used a design that omitted the spring, and it works quite well.

Finally with all of the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed I refinished- well actually- finished the gun; it had never been finished to begin with. I used a simple cold-blue as I wanted to test the gun before committing to a final finish. I actually like the results-

 

The other gun has been finished for some time. Technically. But it never felt finished because I couldn’t come up with proper ammo for it. It’s chambered in .44 Colt- the real .44 Colt, not the cartridge used in Italian reproductions. The original cartridge used a .451 heel-base bullet; .44 percussion revolvers were actually 45 caliber. Because reasons.

.44 Colt brass is easy to make from .44 Special; just shorten it slightly and turn down the rim a bit. easy-peasy. What isn’t easy is keeping the bullets in the cartridges. With the bullets being the same diameter as the case a conventional crimping die won’t do it. Old West Bullet Molds offers a customized Lee collet-crimp die to accomplish this, and that’s what a reasonably intelligent person would buy.  Naturally I didn’t.  Because reasons.

I tried a taper-crimp, and that held the bullets quite well. Especially since my loads were so wimpy they barely made it out of the barrel. OK, I was a little too cautious starting out, but smokeless powder loads for this cartridge are hard to come by.  Next I tried Trail Boss’s recommended method for developing a load. Fill the case to the bottom of the bullet, weigh that charge and start with 70% of that weight. OK then, 6.5 grains of trail boss under a 200 grain bullet.  This failed because bullets were backing out under recoil, and even if that weren’t the case I was getting a lot of un-burned powder. Bugger.

Next I tried the taper-crimp with what a friend of mine calls a ‘Chemical Crimp.’ Basically you glue the bullet in.  This solved the problem with un-burned powder and the loads had considerably more pep. So much that bullets were backing out in the cylinder again. Bugger.

Next I tried modifying a pair of wire-stripping pliers to make the crimp. Ugly not uniform… and the pliers broke. Next! I took a suggestion from a gun-store acquaintance and dulled the cutting-wheel of a pipe-cutter and used that. It crimped them alright- but pieces of the lip of the cartridge came loose and went downrange with the bullets. Others just stuck out at random angles so they could cut you after you removed them from the cylinder. Uncertain of the effect of this crimp on pressure I had also reduced my load. It was perfect- a combination of weak and inconsistent but still strong enough to tear the cartridge lip. Bugger.

Finally I did what any rational person would have done to begin with- forked out $50 for the customized crimp die. This arrived today and I gave it a go. Works a treat- as you would expect, since it’s actually the right tool for the job. I also went back to the original load I had developed, and I am quite confident that things will work out properly this time.

This had an unexpected effect- I hadn’t realized it but I’ve been harboring a niggling feeling that The Dandy wasn’t really finished. I didn’t realize this until having proper ammunition cured that. I finally feel like the gun is complete!

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I recently acquired a new SAA clone- a story for another time- and took it, The Pug and The Outlaw to the range. There I discovered that my ‘cowboy’ loads for the two cartridge-conversion guns look exactly like my hunting load, which is significantly stouter. That was… exciting. It also meant both guns needed some degree of repair. I needed this not to happen again. I needed my cowboy loads to be unmistakable, and the solution was easy- .45 Cowboy Special.

This is basically .45 Colt shortened to .45 ACP length. You reload it using a .45 Colt shell-plate and .45 ACP dies- which I have. I also have quite a lot of .45 Colt brass, so I shortened a box of it to the appropriate length and loaded it with a 200gr. LRNFP over a modest .45 ACP load of Trail Boss. As long as I stick to these the conversion revolvers will have long, happy lives.

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Both of these guns- my first home-made cartridge conversions- will be going to the range later this week for a good wringing out, and I’ll test the new .45 CS ammo as well.  Ought to make for a good time!  Naturally I’ll let you know how it goes.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 16 January 2018

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I started out my civilian hand-gunning career- if one doesn’t count CO2 pistols- with replica cap-and-ball revolvers. Partly this was because of a fascination with them. It’s funny; most people develop an affection for these guns because of Western movies or TV shows. I was the opposite. I didn’t much care for westerns, but the first time I handled an 1851 Navy it was instant love. More than that, it felt familiar. Like a combination of coming home and a surprise encounter with a long-lost friend. It was a little uncanny actually. Handling, loading, disassembly were all felt like familiar operations. If there is such a thing as reincarnation I’m pretty sure that in one of my past lives I was intimately familiar with these pistols.

I bought a number of these pistols starting with an 1851 Navy, an 1861 Navy and an 1860 5-1/2″ and 7″. My pride and joy was a Colt New Production 1862 Pocket Police. That was one beautifully made handgun!

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I was not what you would call careful with these guns. I had a flask that threw a 30gr. charge, so that was how I loaded them- dump 30gr. in the cylinder and stuff a ball on top of it. In the .36 Navy revolvers this took a lot of stuffing, and  what was in the cylinder could no longer be properly called a ‘ball.’  Eventually I bought another 30gr. flask and cut the nozzle down to throw 22-23gr.  This made for no loss of performance in the .36s, but less recoil and fireball.

I didn’t just target shoot with these guns. One of the ways a young soldier on Ft.Riley could supplement his income was hunting coyotes, since there was a plague of them in the local area. Dealing with Kansas wintertime weather I quickly learned to weather-proof my cylinders. I’d stick a pin in the nipple and drip candle-wax around it, so that when I capped the cylinder the edges of the cap were pressed into the wax, not only holding the cap securely in place but giving a water-tight seal.

I rapidly determined that the standard greases used in cap-and ball revolvers genuinely suck and melt far too easily. Now, the ball was wedged in there tight enough that I seriously doubt any water could get past it, but just to be safe I’d cover the ball with more candle-wax. On a particularly bad day one of my guns got submerged in the river and still functioned after. Typically I’d load both .36s before setting out on a hunt, but this wasn’t really necessary; on my best-ever coyote hunt I only emptied one cylinder (5 shots)

I didn’t take chances resting the hammer between cylinders or some such; I actually removed the nipple from one chamber and always rested the hammer there. In true cowboy fashion I often had a rolled-up twenty-dollar bill in this chamber ‘just in case.’

When I got out of the service I continued to target-shoot with these guns, but since I had turned 21 I was increasingly interested in cartridge handguns; in fact on my way home after mustering out I had my first 1873-clone handy… complete with a rolled-up twenty in one cylinder.

I moved back in with my folks and a number of factors drove me away from my beloved percussion revolvers- not the least of which was moving back in with my parents. My mother, never a fan of guns of any kind, was less than thrilled with me cleaning these guns in her kitchen and drying them in the oven. One by one they were sold off in favor of more modern guns, and that was the end of my cap-and-ball days. I always had a certain affection for these guns, but it was never enough to put up with the mess and glacially slow reloads.

Eventually my lovely wife found the perfect solution- for Christmas one year she bought me a Cimarron Richards-Mason conversion replica in .38 Special!  It was love at first sight all over again. I loved shooting that gun and even took it as a holster-gun when deer hunting.

That was my introduction to the world of cartridge-conversion revolvers, and with my new hobby of gunsmithing and my love of percussion revolvers you can imagine how I’ve been spending my spare time… but that, as they say, is another story.

3moSUZK

Michael Tinker Pearce, 5 Jan. 2017