Re-Tasking my Old Colt .32-20.

OK, let’s start by saying I don’t cut the barrel off of every revolver that passes through my hands. No, really! I leave the majority of them alone, actually… they’re just generally not interesting enough to merit a blog post.

This Colt PPS .32-20 , also called .32 Winchester Center Fire, was made in 1910. Fitted with antler grips and a Tyler T-grip it was useful for testing loads, and I liked it quite a bit but didn’t really have any use for it once I’d finished testing.

A year or two back I got my hands on an early Colt police Positive Special with a four-inch barrel to use for ballistic testing in the ‘How Obsolete Are They?’ series, and it’s a nice old gun. Not the best-ever trigger, not in ‘collectible’ condition, but a nice. I made some stag grips for it because the grips that came on the gun were crappy home-made units, and I like stag grips. I used the gun for my tests, then stuck it in a drawer in my safe.

I like the gun but I haven’t really got a use for a medium-frame 4″ revolver. In recent years I have been trying not to hang on to guns I don’t shoot, with a few exceptions that have historic or sentimental value. While this was my first .32-20 it really didn’t qualify by that standard. I wasn’t in a hurry to part with it, but I was contemplating doing so at some point.

I’d always thought, for no particular good reason, that it would be neat to have a Colt Detective Special in .32-20, and had idly contemplated buying a .32-20 cylinder and fitting it to mine. I never got around to it, mostly because I was reluctant to mess with my DS; it’s a very nice gun and an excellent shooter.

My Colt Detective Special in .32 S&W Long, made in 1949. OK, they call it .32 Colt New Police, but it’s just a S&W long with a flat-point bullet. Did i mention I like stag grips? Fantastic shooting gun, and in standard reloads .32-20 offers little or no ballistic advantage over .32 CNP/S&W long so there seemed little point in converting it.

Traditionally on Veteran’s day Linda has decreed that I must do something fun, ideally just for me. I know Veteran’s day is two days away but looking at the week’s schedule I decided to celebrate it today, and casting about for a fun thing to do I decided that rather than selling the Colt PPS I would modify it to fulfill my hankering to a .32-20 Detective Special. It wouldn’t actually be one, of course, but it would be fun and the end result would be the next best thing.

First things first things first, shortening the barrel. I’m a metalworker by trade, so it’s not rocket science for me. I carefully marked the barrel at a hair over 2″ and cut it on my band-saw. Then I trued it up on my belt-grinder, making sure it was nice and square. I used a tapered pipe-chamfering bit in my drill-press to cut a new crown in the muzzle. I cleaned up the crown, sanded and polished the muzzle and cold-blued it with Van’s Instant blue.

I made the sight out of some 0.100″ O-1 tool-steel, cutting it to shape. I used a cut-off wheel to cut a slot in the back of the sight. I used the cut-off wheel again to put a slot in the top of the barrel, filled it with solder flux and inserted the sight. I mounted the gun in a bench-vise, carefully heated the sight and barrel then soldered the sight in with silver-bearing plumbing solder. After it cooled I wiped everything down with acetone to remover residue from the flux. I cleaned it up with files and sandpaper then finished it with more Van’s. This done I filled the slot with orange-red enamel.

The slot in the sight provides space for the enamel, and protects it from wear. It also prevents the colored sight from ‘fuzzing out’ in bright overhead light.

I didn’t want to cut away the front of the trigger-guard like a ‘Fitz-‘ modified gun, but It is nice to have better, faster access to the trigger on a carry-revolver. I used a 5/8″ contact-wheel on my belt-grinder to remove material on the front of the trigger-guard on the right side, then hand-sanded and polished the are and finished it with Van’s.

Cutting away the front side of the trigger-guard on the right allows easier, faster access to the trigger without significantly compromising safety.

At some point I suppose I should do a walk-through of a trigger job, but that’s a post of its own. Suffice to say I made things smoother and the trigger is better. I didn’t change or modify and springs; the trigger isn’t lighter. It’s just smoother, which to my way of thinking is what it really needed to be.

With the grips installed that pretty much finishes things off. The gun is now compact and handy, and limited test-firing at five yards produced a ragged one-hole group. I need to get to the range and really wring it out, but all indications are good.

A Bit About .32-20

It seems strange to me, but a lot of people these days are unfamiliar with this cartridge, so here’s a bit of history.

.32-20, also called .32 WCF (Winchester center Fire) started out chambered in the Winchester Model 1873 rifle, and was first offered in 1882. It was intended primarily for small game, varmints and even game as large as small deer. Colt later chambered their 1873 Single Action Army in this caliber, and both S&W, Colt and others introduced double action revolvers in .32-20 by the end of the 19th C.

In the 1890s with the transition to smokeless powder, and stronger rifles to accommodate it, the cartridge gained significantly in power. This posed a bit of an issue when these cartridges were used in older, weaker revolvers. because of this when SAAMI standards were imposed they limited the maximum pressure to 16000 PSI, and modern factory loads conform to this. Rifle loads often go as high as 40,000 PSI, meaning one needs to pay attention to whether load data is intended for rifles or handguns. There are a few handguns like the Thompson Contender or Ruger Blackhawk can handle rifle loads, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Fired from a 20-24″ barrel these loads offer power levels comparable to .44 Magnum, and many deer have fallen to them over the decades.

As a revolver cartridge fired from a 4-6″ barrel typical loads use bullets from 85-115grs. at velocities ranging from 800-1100 fps. Muzzle energy levels range from from 150-250 ft.lbs.. This places it in a category comparable to standard-pressure .38 Special loads.

The load I developed for this gun uses a 90gr. reversed-HBWC over 4.9gr. of Power Pistol, with a Federal Magnum Small Pistol primer touching things off. This is listed as making 1087 fps. from a 5.5″ barrel, and out of this gun it achieved a five-shot average of 925 fps. and 170 ft./lbs of muzzle energy, with an extreme spread of 21 fps. This is not a maximum pressure load, but it’s close enough in a 110-year-old pistol.

Wrapping Things Up

I found that, with a bit of convincing, Quikstrips for .327 will hold .32-20 cartridges. I like the gun and it’s a good size for an EDC revolver; if it performs as I expect I’ll make a holster and maybe even carry it. I just like it that much! I’ll follow up when I’ve had a chance to give it a proper try-out at the range.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 10 November 2020

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