Cartridge Conversion Percussion Revolvers- Info, Criteria and Process

It’s no secret by now that I am fascinated with Cartridge conversions of percussion revolvers. This all started with the local indoor ranges insisting on jacketed ammo only. It meant that my beloved .45 Colt’s were prohibitively expensive to shoot as I did not reload. Since times were hard I reluctantly parted with them. Then Linda surprised me at Christmas with a Cimarron Richards/Mason conversion- in .38 Special, which I could still afford to shoot!

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This was perfect on so many levels- I love the 1873, but that grew out of my love for the 1851 and 1860 revolvers. This was the best of all worlds- a gun type I loved in a caliber I could afford to shoot. It also represented a type that was more common in the old west than 1873s, and hearkened back to the Spaghetti Westerns of the early 1960’s.

With a bit of research I became aware of the cartridge conversion kits available from Howell, Kirst etc. I decided to do a cartridge conversion of my own, and circumstances (which I have detailed in earlier blogs) dictated that I do so on an 1858 Remington. I selected a Kirst .45 Colt conversion (.44 percussion revolvers are actually .45 caliber) because it was a simple drop-in and would be the easiest to install. It was, requiring only a tiny amount of fitting. Like Remington’s original factory cartridge conversions this is a five-shooter; there just isn’t quite room for the outside diameter of a .45 caliber cartridge to put six shots in the cylinder.

The Kirst Konverter is an excellent product, made of modern materials with proper heat-treat and a very high degree of finish. I was so happy with this product that when my next conversion project came along I bought another one, this time for a Colt reproduction. Again it worked a treat-aside from needing a drop of Loctite in the gate retention screw.

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But there is a problem with Kirst Konverters. OK, to be more accurate there is a problem with my finances; being self-employed and partially disabled my disposable income is pretty limited at times, which means a conversion project winds up sitting on the shelf for 3-6 months waiting for me to be able to afford the Kirst unit. So when another 1858 project showed up on my doorstep it was time for a different approach.

I had taken up reloading which opened the gates to more variety of cartridges, and these guns were originally chambered in .44 Colt or something very like it. These cartridges used a .44 caliber case loaded with a .451 bullet with a heel-base like a .22LR. This meant the casing had an outside diameter of .451-.454, and there is just enough room to bore out a .44 Colt or Remington cylinder to accommodate this cartridge. I had also procured a proper metal lathe, so I turned down the back of the cylinder and bored it through, then reamed the chambers to .454″.  I made a breech-plate from scrap 1/4″ 5160, which I have a lot of due to my day-job, mounted a floating firing-pin, cut a port for loading and voila! I had a home-spun cartridge conversion, very like the sort of things done by gunsmiths back in the day.

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Really the mechanics of the conversion were not difficult, and I knew it was possible because it was done safely in the 19th century even though the quality of the materials was lower. Getting the ammunition right actually proved to be a far tougher task and involved making special equipment to load the cartridges. But overall it was a success.

Since then I have converted an 1849 reproduction to .22 LR, an 1851/.44 to .38 S&W and a Walker to a .44-55.

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All of these conversion were basically done the same way- turn down the back of the cylinder, leaving the ratchet, then bore it through to accept cartridges. In the case of the .22 and .38 S&W I also lined the chambers and reamed them for the cartridge, and lined the barrel as well with rifled barrel-liner purchased from Numerich Arms. Then I made a breech-plate with a loading port and a floating firing-pin. In the case of the Walker conversion I mounted this to the gun’s blast-shield with screws. Each gun had it’s variations, but the basic process is the same.

So far I’ve done four home-spun conversions, and I plan to do more. But there is something you should understand- this is risky- even dangerous- if you aren’t me. I have been a knife and sword-maker for decades, and not only have the shop equipment I need, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the strength and working properties of metals. I also have more than the common run of knowledge about firearms- though this is easy to remedy with sufficient research. You need to know though- there are no guarantees and it would be very easy to harm yourself or others if you get it wrong.

OK, in an excess of optimism or even based on genuine capability you have decided to go ahead and do your own conversion. I’d actually advise against it, but I will tell you how I made my decisions and what they were based on.

The first conversion I did myself was based on conversions that were done to original guns- I used a reproduction of a gun they used and made it for a cartridge from that application. The metallurgy of modern reproductions is a fair bit better than what was in use when these guns were new. We use steel where they used iron. Where they used steel makers today use better quality, more uniform steel. It is a safe bet that we can do anything to a reproduction that they did to an original.

Some background you should know- in the mid 19th Century all cartridges used black powder, and the cases were loaded by putting as much powder in as would fit,  then stuffing a bullet in on top of it. You literally cannot put enough powder in the case to blow up the gun without some external factor- like a plugged bore- contributing.  Similarly you cannot stuff enough black powder into the cylinder of a modern reproduction percussion revolver to blow it up. This makes 19th century cartridges an obvious choice to use in a cartridge-conversion revolver, even with smokeless powder.

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Here’s something else you need to know- it is perfectly safe to load smokeless powder loads in a cartridge designed for black powder loads. Back around the turn of the 20th Century when they converted to smokeless powder all common revolvers and derringers were designed for black powder cartridges. Yet the transition to smokeless powder was seamless. Why? Because ammo companies didn’t want to get sued and besides, blowing up people’s guns would make it difficult to sell their ammo. So they formulated loads that were safe to fire in cartridges designed for Black Powder.  Yet many people today are convinced this is unsafe. Why?

Because hand-loaders. They had a tendency to load the new smokeless powders as if they were black powder, and they blew up their guns. This was so common that catalogs of the period specifically noted that the new style of powder was loaded differently and used much less powder. The truth is that the laws of physics don’t magically change because one type of powder is more energy-dense and makes less smoke. Pressure is pressure, period. Burn rates, pressure curves etc. can all be compensated for. There are even people that load reproduction cap-and-ball revolvers with smokeless powder (though this often necessitates a better ignition system.) No, smokeless powders are not a high-explosives that can ‘shock’ the steel and cause ruptures if properly loaded.

The fail-safe method would be to use black powder cartridges loaded with honest-to-God black powder. This is safest for one simple reason- it is impossible to overload the cartridge. If you want to use smokeless do your research and stick to lower-powered loads. It’s also going to be prudent to pick a cartridge that was used in cartridge conversions, like .38 Colt or .44 Colt. This will require special equipment and heel-base bullets to reload, which is  bit of a pain in the butt if you aren’t seriously committed. Or just should be committed.  Regardless, this will provide your greatest margin of safety because you know it worked then and there is no reason it wouldn’t work now.

This gets harder when you are working with a cartridge that never existed- like .44-55 Walker, which I made up. The reasoning goes something like this- the wrought-iron cylinder of a Colt Walker could handle a 60-grain charge of black powder behind a 210 grain picket bullet. The steel that a modern reproduction is made of is mild steel equivalent to 1018-1020.  This is significantly stronger than wrought iron, so it will be safe to duplicate Walker loads in the modern reproduction.  Other people have bored-out Kirst .45 Colt cylinders to accept cartridges like .45-60-225- a .45 caliber, 225-gr. bullet over the equivalent of 60 gr. of black powder. The Kirst cylinder is of course much tougher than the reproduction cylinder, being 4140 tool steel that has been heat-treated to a half-hard state- but the load is still only a little over the limit for the original iron cylinder. Still, the repro cylinder is less strong than the Kirst, so it is better to err on the side of caution and not quite equal the original Walker load.

I also decided to make my cartridges out of rifle brass- .303 British, actually- because this brass is much stronger than should be needed. Once expanded to take the .45 caliber heel-base bullet and fire-formed the cartridge will accommodate a 55gr. charge of FFFg. Thus the name- .44-55 Walker.  Since my winter shooting is pretty much restricted to indoor ranges I wanted a smokeless load, and I selected Trail Boss for this because it is a relatively safe alternative to black powder, and unlike some other powders it will not leave a large void in the loaded cartridge, which can cause poor ignition or, in a worst-case, detonation. Using the manufacturer’s recommended process for developing loads the case will hold 13.4gr of Trail Boss, so I backed it off to 10gr. as a starting point and this has worked out just fine. A friend’s wildcat, .45 Walker, uses a 225 grain bullet over 12 grains of Trail Boss, so I reckoned 10 made for a pretty safe load, and so it has proven in use.

So I started from a reasonable assumption, checked with other people’s experience and proceeded methodically, erring on the side of caution. Similarly deciding to chamber the brass .44 in .38 S&W. The recommended load is a 173gr. .451 ball over 15 grains of black powder. This is about half the maximum charge for the cylinder, so I know the cylinder can easily take it. 173gr projectile over 15gr. of Black powder won’t over-stress or stretch the brass frame. My .38 S&W was normally loaded with a 147gr. bullet over 11-12gr of black powder, so the modern equivalent is well below the threshold of the recommended load for the gun. Since I actually added metal by lining the chambers and bore the gun is even stronger than stock, so it is reasonable to assume it will be fine with the .38 S&W loads.

But- while I can be virtually certain the gun won’t grenade on me the smaller diameter cartridge will generate higher pressures than the same load in a larger cartridge, and it might stretch the frame more than expected. I don’t really expect so; equal and opposite reactions and all that; between the ball, fiber wad and powder charge of the recommended .44 load it’s throwing a lot more weight downrange, so it’s going to have significantly more recoil. The good news is the worst frame-stretch will cause is inconsistent ignition as the primers get too far away from the breech, and excessive cylinder-gap blast. In other words a failure will not only be obvious, but it will render the gun inoperable before it is catastrophically severe.

A lot of thought goes into my conversions- and the thought I cannot escape is that it would be better to leave it to professionals. Products like Kirst and Howell converters are made from better materials and processes than I can employ by people with a lot of experience.  They can also steer you to professional gunsmiths like Gary Lee Barnes that do conversions using their products and produce exceptional results. The fact that some schmuck can do this in his home workshop and hasn’t blown himself up yet does not make it a good idea.

Yes, I am going to continue, against my own advice, to make cartridge conversions. But I am going to do it carefully, thoughtfully and cautiously, and never forget that what I am doing is inherently dangerous.

Michael Tinker Pearce. 29 April 2018

 

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.38 S&W ‘Avenging Angel’

A buddy of mine asked if I would convert a brass-framed 1851/.44 to an Avenging Angel for him, and since it is technically a non-firearm I said sure. So in yesterday’s mail a pair of Pietta 1851/.44s arrived.  I had a .38 S&W cylinder and barrel that I made last year mounted on a steel 1860 Army frame, but I thought the brass frame might be a better home for it.

Since the conversion was based on a Pietta cylinder it dropped right in, but the breech-plate wanted to rotate excessively. No worries- I simply soldered on some sheet-brass to the bottom and trimmed it to size, then ground it to fit the frame precisely. Other bits of fitting were required here and there, and I turned a new rebounding firing-pin as the other had always been a bit short and occasionally caused light strikes. Naturally I needed to cut a loading-port in the frame for loading and unloading, but this was quickly and easily accomplished with a 1/2″ sanding drum on my flex-shaft tool. A little polishing and it was good-to-go. You can see some small pits- these are just tiny voids in the casting, and are perfectly normal. The cartridges shown are dummies.

The brass gun already had a decent trigger so there was no need to fool with that, and the cylinder locks up tight with no side-play at all. The I haven’t measured the cylinder-gap, but it looks to be maybe .0030-.0035″. I need to track down my feeler gauge to be sure, but it’s absolutely within acceptable limits.

Normally one does not do a cartridge-conversion on a brass frame- with full-power charges these can stretch after as few as a hundred rounds. However with the recommended load of 15-20gr. of FFFg behind a fiber wad and a 173GR .451 ball theses Piettas will last for many years of steady shooting. The load I am shooting is the equivalent of 11-12gr. of FFFg behind a 148-150gr bullet, and Unique is significantly less violet than BP so it ought to be fine for the occasional range outing and some casual plinking. Time will tell of course- I’m very much looking forward to getting it out to the range this weekend!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 April 2018

Range Report, 22 April 2018

Linda realized that with her most recent purchase she now had a couple of guns she had yet to fire, so we packed up and went off to Champion Arms this afternoon- but things really started earlier this week.

I had been missing having a .22 rifle for some time, in part with the intent of teaching the wife to shoot long-guns, so Linda and I had gone to Pinto’s to look things over. I found a very nice Montogmery Ward’s Westernfield Model 37. These are bolt-action repeaters made for Ward’s in the mid-1930s.  While I was looking that over Linda became enamored of a Winchester Model 270 Deluxe pump-action rifle.  Since the two rifles were, respectively, $90 & $100 we purchased them both.

Also along for the ride was Linda’s Colt Jr. 25 auto. We loaded it up with some Fiocchi ball and tried it out. She found it quite fun and, as she said repeatedly, adorable.  I tried it also, and it’s a very pleasant little gun to shoot, and not at all difficult to produce reasonable groups at short range.

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Linda’s 5-yard group with the Colt Jr.- not bad at all!
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My group at 7 yards- I like this little gun!

Next Linda gave her Astra Police a go. She found it quite enjoyable to shoot but with heavier loads my grips (which were mounted on the gun so she can try them out) were rubbing the ball of her thumb uncomfortably.  We’ll try the Hogue Monogrip that came with the gun, and after we see how she likes that I’ll make a custom grip for her. She’s looking forward to practicing with this gun more.

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Linda’s 7-yard double-action groups

Linda also shot her Taurus TCP .380. This little gun is double-action only, firing from a locked breech. It is very light and flat as befits a gun made for concealed carry, and has been absolutely reliable. She likes the trigger and is accurate enough with it, but finds it a bit brutal.  Not that it matters much on a purely defensive pistol, but she might replace it with something more pleasant to shoot.

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Reliable, accurate- but a bit brutal

Next she wanted to try her new rifle. She’d never fired a long-gun before but wanted to learn.  The Winchester Model 270 was a modestly-priced slide-action rifle made from the mid-1960’s to mid-1970s. The Deluxe Model has a machine-turned finish on the bolt and impressed checkering on the stock.

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No one online seems to have any idea why these weapons weren’t more popular- they are light, handy, attractive and reliable and seemed to have been priced competitively. Linda had a little issue with getting her glasses to work with the sights but she quickly got the hang of it.

The group on the left is her first-ever group with a rifle, shot at 5 yards. The middle picture was shot at 10 yards, and the picture on the right was shot at 15 yards. All groups were fired standing-unsupported. She loved shooting the new rifle but tired quickly. ‘Different group of muscles,’ she said. I pointed out that when we went to an outdoor range she could shoot from a bench-rest. ‘But won’t I be shooting unsupported in the field- shouldn’t I practice that way?’  She’s right of course, but I assured her that both kinds of practice were useful.  She is now really glad she bought this rifle as she had an absolute ball shooting it. I think we can count Linda among the converts to rifle-shooting!

I wanted to try Linda out on the .32 New Police Detective Special, and we rapidly discovered I had not brought target loads, but rather my defensive loads which are rather stout. Oops… While she found them unpleasant to shoot she did produce a rather nice group at 7 yards. I shot two groups myself, one at shorter range and one at twenty-five yards. Nothing to be ashamed of in either case.

 

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Rapid-fire at 7 yards- not bad at all!
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Double-Action, standing-unsupported at 25 yards- dammit, there always has to be a flyer! The tape covers the 7-yard group I shot with the Colt Jr. .25

Linda also tried out the Sheriff’s Model .45- she was accurate and the recoil was manageable, but she simply doesn’t care for single actions. I, on the other hand, care for them very much, thank you! I only had about twenty rounds with us, and after peppering a ten yard target I reeled it out to twenty-five yards. Not one of my better efforts, frankly-

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Not an entirely disgraceful group for a 3″ barrel at 25 yards- except for a pesky flyer that missed the paper entirely. Bugger.

Which brings us, last but not least, to the Westernfield Model 37.  Word is that it is was made by Mossberg based on their Model 30, which makes very little sense as this was a single-shot with a different bolt.  Regardless it is a simple and entirely conventional bolt-action with a removable 5-shot magazine.  It has no manual safety of any kind; apparently one was simply not supposed to pull the trigger unless one intended to fire the weapon. Novel concept, that.  The weapon is relatively light. It has simple sights, the rear of which is range-adjustable for close, medium and long range. The trigger-pull is excellent and the wood of the stock is surprisingly pretty, although the blonde finish does not show this to it’s best advantage. I may refinish the stock; we’ll see.

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Age has not affected this rifles ability, or the joy of shooting it. There’s something very pleasant about a nice bolt-action .22; I’m not sure exactly what it is.  It might be that they are very simple and purposeful- and the bolt action encourages a relaxed pace. Whatever, I very much enjoyed this old rifle.  Firing standing-unsupported I cannot say I was laser-accurate. I shot targets at ten, fifteen and twenty-five yards (the maximum range available at Champion Arms.)

The target on the left was shot at twenty-five yards, the right shot at ten yards. Obviously I need a lot of practice.  I’ll need to spend a lot more time on the range… Uh, darn?  I think this is what I refer to as ‘a tragedy of a limited scope.’

Altogether it was a great afternoon at the range, made all the better for Linda joining me. As for her, she had a great time, and thinks her new rifle may well become her favorite thing to shoot!  She’s now talking about heading to the skeet range to try out her Remington 20-gauge auto… It looks rather like a membership to a range or two is in the near future…

Micheal Tinker Pearce, 22 April 2018

Custom Sheriff’s Model

I’ve always liked the look of the Colt 1873 Single Action Army- I mean, who doesn’t?  One variant that I always found particularly fetching was the Sheriff’s Model.

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Typically this model is associated with a shorter than usual barrel length of 3″, but in reality the defining characteristic is the lack of an ejector.  ‘Sheriff’s Model’ is actually a name applied to these guns by collector’s; Colt originally offered them as ‘Ejectorless’ models. I’ve seen originals with barrel-lengths up to 5-1/2″ and in fact you could order them with any length of barrel. In the 19th Century the most common lengths were 3″ and 4″.

Being a man of limited means the chances of my getting my hands on a factory Sheriff’s Model, either original or new, is nil.  If I ever wanted a gun of this type I was going to need to make it myself from a less expensive reproduction. Enter the Hawe’s Firearms Western Marshal .45, made by J.P.Sauer & Sohn of West Germany.

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Shoots a bit low- typical for these sorts of guns

J.P.Sauer & Sohn were the first European company to produce replicas of the 1873, and they were imported by several companies under different trade-names. These guns were much less expensive than Colts, so they were often used in television Westerns of the 1950’s and 60’s instead of actual ‘Peacemakers.’  They differ from Colt’s in a number of respects; they are rather larger and stouter, which since they were offered in calibers up to .44 Magnum they pretty much had to be. They also used a frame-mounted rebounding firing pin instead of the Colt’s hammer-mounted unit. Like the Colt the hammer must be placed over an empty cylinder for safe carry, or else dropping the gun risks an unintentional discharge. The profile of the front of the frame below the barrel is also different, and the grip-frame is alloy rather than iron or steel. These guns were not as well finished as a Colt, of course, and came with a plain dark finish.

I encountered one of these guns at Pinto’s last year in quite good condition, and it seemed like the perfect candidate for a Sheriff’s Model conversion. It was well-made, locked up tight and had an excellent action and trigger. It also had a spare, un-fluted cylinder chambered for .45 ACP. The finish was nothing to write home about- the sides of the frame were wavy and the ‘bluing’ there looked distinctly paint-like- but for the princely sum of $275 I was willing to forgive a lot.

Of course I had to take the gun out and shoot it, and it was a nice gun. Since I didn’t have a full-size gun in .45 Colt I decided not to cut the gun down.  This didn’t mean I was going to leave it unmolested, mind you! I thought I would take care of some of the cosmetics and re-blue it. I flattened the sides of the frame and removed the finish from the grip-frame, which I thought improved things a good bit. Then I tried to blue the gun…

Nope. Not happening. None of the several bluing methods I had on hand had any effect. I even tried to see if I could make it rust. Nope. The gun is apparently stainless steel, or so close to it as to not matter. This explained why the finish looked like paint in some places- it more or less was. Bugger.

Well, nothing for it but to polish the entire gun, so I did- and wile I was at it I went ahead and re-contoured the front of the frame to more closely resemble a Colt. You can see the difference in the pictures below-

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The refinished gun was quite attractive, and it stayed in this state through the winter. Then a 4-5/8″ Armi San Marcos 1873 .45 was offered at a very good price and I couldn’t resist. This is my favorite barrel length on a Peacemaker so it has remained unmolested… but now the J.P Sauer & Sohn gun was redundant. Yeah, remember that Sheriff’s model I wanted to make?

First things first- I like the look of an un-fluted cylinder, and the .45 ACP cylinder that came with the gun was going unused, so I carefully reamed out the chambers to accept .45 Colt. This took some time, mostly because I needed to be very careful to accomplish this. When it was finally done I went ahead and made a ‘nail-nick’ at the edge of each chamber so that a fingernail or small tool can be inserted under the rim of the cartridge to facilitate removal of spent shells.

With that being done I removed the dark finish and polished the cylinder to match the rest of the gun.  Moving on to the barrel I removed the ejector, then used a small pipe-cutter to mark the cut. I sliced the barrel off on the band-saw, then used the mark from the pipe-cutter to true the barrel on the belt-grinder. I broke the edge of the barrel and crowned it with a conical burr in the drill-press.

Since the front sight was far too tall I sliced it off the cut-off barrel section rather than removing is properly then refaced the bottom. I established the center-line on the barrel, and using a cut-off wheel in the flex-shaft tool I cut a slot for the sight. I worked carefully to get a friction-fit, then silver-soldered the sight in place.  The front-sight is set well-back from the muzzle, as was typical for these guns. No- I don’t know why.

Polished everything up and gave the gun a good cleaning, and I’m delighted with the results-

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As you can see the J.P.S.&S. gun is a good bit beefier than the ASM Peacemaker

So, all finished? Not quite, actually. I left the ejector-rod housing in place because I had not yet decided whether or not to mount a shortened ejector. After contemplating the matter overnight though I have decided not to, so I ground away the ejector housing as was done on the first of the original guns. Colt later made a symmetrical frame that lacked this housing, but that’s not an option, so I had to do it the old-fashioned way.

After grinding away the ejector housing I found the cylinder-release screw on that side stuck out ludicrously far, so I shortened and re-blued it. Now we’re done!

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This will make it much easier to use a rod to eject empties, and it really does look better. I can’t wait to get this one to the range and try her out.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 8 April 2018