Perusing the case at Pinto’s I spotted this Pietta 1858. It stood out for the checkered grips and case-hardened frame. The grips are quite nicely made and appear to be some sort of maple with a bit of quilting. It was used, though it appeared to have never been fired. I was flush with cash from selling two shotguns I never shoot and the price was irresistible, so I didn’t.
By this point I don’t imagine that it’s any secret that I am not a big fan of long-barrelled revolvers. Oh sure, there are exceptions, like my Abilene .44 Magnum, but that is for handgun hunting. There was never much question that I was going to shorten the barrel, it was just a matter of how much. I already have two 1858 ‘snubbies’ so I didn’t feel any great need for another. In addition with the color case-hardened frame and fancy grips I was kind of locked in to not modifying the frame.
A few years back I did a 3-1/2″ gun and I like it quite a bit. Not too large to conceal, very balanced in the hand and it points very naturally. I had come to think of this as a ‘gunfighter’ length because I imagined its handiness and speed might appeal to a man of action.
I decided that I was going to use my Kirst gated conversion; the gun it was mounted in has been slated for further work that will include a bespoke cylinder. You’ll see more on that in a future post.
First thing first was to cut the loading port in the blast-shield to allow cartridges to be fed into the cylinder. I mounted the Kirst unit and marked where the gate was, then I removed it and dismantled the revolver except for the loading lever and cylinder pin; I left those because I would need to mount and remove the Kirst cylinder several times in the process.
To do this I used a 1/2″ 80-grit sanding drum in a rotary flex-shaft tool. You can use a standard Dremel tool, but in my experience you will need to stop several times in the process to let the tool cool down. I slowly cut the port, being careful to keep the drum straight and level in the cut. This is a lengthy process; it will take some time to make an uncorrectable mistake, so as long as you are careful it ought to come out alright.
After a certain point I knew I was getting close and fitted the cylinder to check. I wasn’t getting close. I fitted and removed the cylinder several times before cartridges were able to slide easily in and out of the cylinder. Once I had accomplished that I used a 600-grit sanding drum to smooth everything out, then applied cold-blue paste to darken the metal in the port.
With this completed I marked and shortened the barrel to 3-1/2″. I mounted the frame in the drill press, and aligning it carefully I used a conical reamer to crown the barrel, then polished the crown.
The cylinder pin is normally held in by the loading lever, which is retained by a catch on the barrel. The 3-1/2″ barrel is far to short to allow the cylinder pin to be withdrawn if the catch is fitted in conjunction with a shortened loading lever, so another method of retaining it is needed. You can buy a catch from some suppliers, but I think these are ugly and result in an awkward-looking gun.
My preferred method is to shorten the loading-lever, bore through it into the cylinder pin and install a plunger to lock the lever in position. Not only is this more attractive, it can still be used as a loading lever if the percussion cylinder is mounted.
With the loading lever completed I used a cut-off wheel in the flex-shaft tool to cut a carefully centered slot in the top of the barrel to hold the new front-sight. I cut the sight out of bronze plate, just thick enough that it needed to be force-fitted in the slot. I like to use brass or bronze front sight because they are more visible, under a variety of conditions, than black steel. I tapped the sight gently into the slot, secured it temporarily with superglue, then staked it in place with a punch. The gun was now essentially complete.
At some future point I will refinish the barrel to get rid of the chopped-off stampings, but for now I’m OK with them. Time to test this beast!
I sat down at my reloading bench and cranked out fifty-five of my default .45 Colt load- a 200gr. LRNFP from Aardvark Enterprises over 8.0 gr. of Unique with a Federal #150 large pistol primer. With these in hand I was off to Champion Arms indoor shooting range.
I fired the gun at 7, 15 and 25 yards. It was right on at 7 yards, but somewhat weirdly it shot higher at fifteen and higher still at twenty-five. Group sizes were OK- well, I think they were OK. At twenty five yards there were only two hits at the top of the target, though they were only about 3-1/2″ apart. The other hits were off the top of the paper. The backing cardboard was pretty well shot up, but it looked like the other shots were similarly spaced although it’s hard to say with any certainty.
I finished up with a target at five yards. I simply pointed the gun without aiming and fired five shots as fast as I could thumb the hammer. Only one shot landed out of the black. Then I repeated this, aiming at the lower right corner and produced a three inch group. One more time, this time aiming at the lower left corner with similar results. I’m really pleased- the gun points very naturally.
The checkering is grippy, but not so sharp as to be uncomfortable, and the ample dimensions of the handle scales made recoil very easy to manage. All in all quite a pleasant gun to shoot.
I found myself thinking of this gun as ‘The Gunfighter,’ so I guess that’s as good a name as any. This is not the most interesting or extensive conversion I have done, but I am really, really happy with the result. I expect this gun will get a lot of range-time!
Michael Tinker Pearce, 3 August 2019