Old School Reloading for an Old School Snubby

An 1851 Navy modified as an ‘Avenging Angel’ snub-nosed revolver, and converted to fire .38 Short Colt. The gun has a ‘Bisley’ style grip, which, while anachronistic, is very comfortable. The case includes an ejector rod, a screwdriver and reloading tools.

The Ideal Reloading Tool

Back in the 19th C. you very likely might not have a full reloading bench, or have it with you when needed. Various hand tools were devised for reloading in the field, including the Ideal Reloading Tool.

Hand-held reloading tools were introduced alongside centerfire metallic cartridges. Winchester was the first large manufacturer to sell these. The tools were a ‘nutcracker’ type tool, and included a bullet mold. With this tool and the proper components one could make finished ammunition at home or in the field. Smith & Wesson, Colt and other manufacturers followed this trend.

Eventually Winchester stopped making these tools, and John Barlow, the man who ran the department for them, went out on his own and went to work for Ideal Tool. They produced a variety of bullet molds, and in 1885 launched the Winchester-style Ideal Reloading Tool, which was offered in a variety of calibers and configurations; each caliber required a specific tool. New designs and modifications were introduced over time, and in the late 1930s Ideal was taken over by Lyman.

A few years back a friend happened across one in .38 S&W, and knowing that I shoot that caliber sent it to me. I quickly realized that it only worked with 147gr. RNL- the original bullet used in .38 S&W. I don’t load those; most of the bullets I use have a stubbier profile, which rendered the tool useless to me. It didn’t take long for me to realize I could install a screw to adjust for different bullet lengths, which I promptly did. This illustrates the major shortcoming of the tool; they were not only caliber specific, but very limited in the selection of bullets they would work with. With the screw-plunger the tool worked out rather well, but I seldom used it, having a proper reloading press.

Using the Ideal Reloading Tool

I actually use the tool to reload .38 Short Colt… sort of. I use .38 S&W brass, but it works well enough. The Colt cartridge has an overall length of .765″, and the S&W is .800″ long. Since .38 SC uses a heel-base .375 bullet the chambers are bored straight through to a uniform diameter, so as long as the bullet doesn’t stick out the end of the cylinder the case length isn’t critical.

It turns out that the .38 S&W tool works quite well for .38 SC., at least using the ‘wrong’ brass. It’s pretty simple to use, especially if you start with resized brass. I have loaded un-resized brass, but this can be a tight fit in your cylinder when loading.

For projectiles I am using Buffalo Bullets 125gr. RNL. While not a true heel-base bullet, they do taper towards the back to facilitate loading them into the cylinder of a percussion revolver (which is what they are designed for.) I’ve found them to work quite well in .38 Short Colt, and I imagine they would work equally well in .38 Long Colt. The powder I am using is Hodgden’s Triple-7 FFFg, a black powder substitute that I have gotten excellent results with.

OK, before you ask, I have nothing against actual black powder, and think quite well of Swiss. In this state, however, it will take me a four-hour round trip to buy even Goex, and Swiss is unobtainium. Yeah, I could order it online, but the hazardous material shipping fees double the cost. Add in that Triple-7 is pretty much non-corrosive (I clean the guns the same way I would for smokeless powders) and available 10 minutes away, and… well, we have a winner.

The explanation will make more sense with illustration, so here’s a pictorial essay on the process.

Of course you need the essentials- from left to right- powder, powder measure, primers, bullets and the tool.
First you’ll need to prime the case. I do this with the primer on a hard surface and press the case onto it to get it started. It’s important not to touch the primer; aome peoples natural oils will disable them if they get inside.
Next, drop the case in the hole opposite the small, flat stud.
Pressing the handles firmly together will seat the primer
Next you need to flare the mouth of the case. Yes, I’m an idiot and did this out of order. With the case placed over the seating chamber, hold the case and tap the base of it on a hard surface until you get the desired amount of flare.
It doesn’t take much, so don’t overdo it. You need just enough to fit the base of the bullet into the case.
Next you need to charge the case. With the powder measure set to the correct charge (in this case ten grains) carefully pour powder in until it’s level with the top of the measure…
…then pour the powder into the case. When using black powder or a substitute it is important not to leave any air-space between the bullet and powder. This can cause a dangerous pressure-spike that can severely damage your gun and injure you. Please read the instructions for your powder about how much compression of the powder is desirable, and follow the directions!
Once the case is charged place the bullet in the case and insert it into the seating die on the tool. As you can see, the ‘dry’ lube is messy as hell.
Best to place the die over the bullet and case to avoid spilling the powder. I’m doing it the other way in the photo so you can see. One the bullet and case are in place squeeze the handles together to seat the bullet. This particular tool does not roll-crimp the case; rather it retains it with tension on the neck. Not usual for a revolver cartridge, but I haven’t had any problems with bullets in this low-powered cartridge ‘walking out’ under recoil.
When you close the tool it seats the bullet, and when you open it the spring-loaded extractor pulls the loaded case out.
…and there you have it- a loaded cartridge ready to go. The outside ‘dry’ lube is messy, but it seems to do the job.

The Gun

I thought people would likely have questions about the gun, so here are some answers. Obviously it’s based on an 1851 Navy reproduction, and it was made in Italy, but I genuinely don’t remember who made the frame, and the parts are from several manufacturers. It’s a real Frankengun.

Still a bit of finishing work left to do, but it’s complete and functional.

The gun weighs 29 oz., so recoil from the .38 Short Colt is pretty mild. The barrel is 1-13/16″ long, and it’s profile is based on an Avenging Angel from the 19th C. The cylinder is made from a percussion cylinder with the back turned down around the sprocket, then bored through and reamed to approx. .380″. The breech plate is 5160 spring steel, and has a hole to allow the use of a hammer-mounted fixed firing pin. There is a loading port, but no loading gate, and naturally there is a matching loading port cut in the blast-shield.

The barrel was originally a .44 barrel. I bored it our and lined it with a .36 caliber barrel (which is actually .375″.) The cylinder-gap is .004″. There is a bead front sight, and the rear sight is a notch cut in the hammer nose, as was normal for an 1851.

The grip-frame has been extensively modified, both on the front/trigger-guard and the backstrap, to mimic the shape of the Colt Bisley grip. The handle is Quilted Maple, custom made to fit the grip-frame. It was hand-sanded to 3000-grit before applying the lacquer finish.

How does it shoot? God only knows- I’ve only done a few point-blank test shots to insure everything is working properly. No reason to believe it will be inaccurate, but where the point of impact is in relation to the sights? We won’t know until I can get it out to the range- which I am very much looking forward to!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 3 May 2020

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