Monthly Archives: May 2016

Kickin’ it (Really) Old School- Cartridge Conversion Revolvers

RM38a

In the mid-19th Century a fellow named Rollin White came up with an idea- bore a revolver cylinder all the way through so you could load metallic cartridges from the rear. S&W saw the virtue in this and procured rights to the patent- giving them exclusive use of the concept (in America, at least) until 1869.

Colt, then the largest manufacturer of revolvers, had originally scoffed at the idea. Their front-loading cap-and-ball revolvers were doing well, after all. Why would people switch from their tried-and-true to this new-fangled technology?

This turned out to be a big mistake, and Colt and other revolver companies made several attempts, none successful, to circumvent this patent. As you can imagine by the time the patent expired Colt was eager to enter the market with their own cartridge revolvers. Yet by some monumental screw-up they did not have a gun ready and waiting when the patent expired. They also had huge stocks of parts for their cap-and-ball revolvers. So they did the obvious thing- they manufactured cap-and-ball guns suitably modified to fire metallic cartridges.

To do this they cut away the back of the cylinder where the nipples for percussion caps were normally placed, bored them straight through at a uniform diameter and built a breech-plate with a loading gate to place behind the cylinder. Voila! Instant cartridge revolver.

Cimarron 1851 Navy Richards-Mason Conversion Replica

These were originally made with 1851 Navy frames and barrels and chambered in .38CFC, a short cartridge with a heeled bullet. There were a number of variations, and eventually conversions of Army revolvers as well as a purpose-built open top revolver based on the old-style frame.

These guns remained popular long after the introduction of Colt’s Single-Action Army revolver, which was mechanically quite similar to their early guns but enclosed the cylinder in a solid-frame.  Part of the reason for this was price- a Richards-Mason Colt could be purchased for about $5 whereas the new SAA cost $25. For a modest fee Colt would also convert a customer’s cap-and-ball gun for cartridges. Remington also jumped on the bandwagon and offered their own, arguably superior, cartridge conversion revolvers.

These guns largely vanished into obscurity, known mostly to fans of spaghetti westerns and arms historians. Then awhile back some gunsmiths started offering conversions for cap-and-ball reproductions. Two companies currently offer conversion kits for Pietta and Uberti cap-and-ball revolvers.

Howell (http://www.howelloldwestconversions.com/shop/products.cfm?catid=261) offers two types of conversions. The first type consists of a cylinder and base-plate with individual firing-pins for each chamber. To load these the cylinder must be removed from the gun, the baseplate removed from the cylinder and the chambers loaded, then the base-plate is replaced and the cylinder reinstalled in the gun. The process is cumbersome, but does allow one to switch back-and-forth between cap-and-ball or cartridges and requires no modification of the firearm.

Howell’s second type of conversion permanently converts the revolver to fire cartridges, and is very similar to the original Colt or Remington conversions. These do require some metal-working capability, and Howell offers fixtures to help with this. Essentially it involves boring and tapping some holes in the breech-face and relieving the blast-shield behind the loading gate to allow cartridges to be inserted.

Kirst (http://www.kirstkonverter.com) also offers a cartridge conversion kit that is almost a drop-in conversion. It still requires that the blast-shield be relieved behind the loading gate, but this is easily done with fairly basic tools.

Both of these companies offer proven products that function well, but there are limitations. First is that the cylinders are too short for some modern ammunition; care must be taken to select or reload your own ammunition that is short enough to fit in the cylinder. Also Navy caliber revolvers (.36) fire bullets slightly larger in diameter than a modern .38 Special uses. Generally these conversions are chambered for .38 Colt, which is pretty expensive ammunition if you don’t reload your own. You may be able to shoot commercially loaded .38 Special Hollow-base wadcutters in them; the overall length is short enough and the hollow-base of the bullet will expand to fill the bore properly.

Another limitation is a function of the construction of cap-and-ball reproductions. Revolvers have what is known as a ‘forcing cone’ at the base of the barrel to guide the projectile from the cylinder into the rifled bore of the barrel. In modern revolvers the forcing cone is tempered steel, and thus can use any modern jacketed ammunition that the gun is rated for. But on cap-and-ball revolvers the forcing cone is not tempered, and firing high-pressure ammunition or jacketed bullets can split the forcing cone, ruining the barrel and rendering the gun unsafe to fire. Guns outfitted with these conversion should use lead bullets only, in low-pressure loadings that do not exceed 1000 fps at the muzzle.

Lastly these conversions are for steel-framed guns only- mounting one in a brass-framed gun is dangerous and should not be done.

Legally in most jurisdictions in the US cap-and-ball revolvers are not considered firearms. Once you convert it to fire cartridges this may change, and my change the rules under which the gun may be sold or transferred. The simple remedy for this is to dismount the conversion and fit the original cylinder to the gun and include the conversion parts in the sale. In some states it is illegal to do this conversion; check  your local laws before investing in a cartridge conversion!

The use of obsolete cartridges, lead bullets only etc. can limit the appeal of these guns, especially for folks that don’t reload their own ammunition. But have no fear- Cimarron Firearms (http://cimarron-firearms.com) offers factory-made cartridge-conversion guns in calibers like .38 Special and .45 Colt, as well as a variety of ‘western’ calibers. These guns do vary a bit dimensionally from the originals; the cylinders need to be long enough for the modern loadings, and they are a bit more robust to accommodate the pressures of current ammunition. You can use jacketed ammunition in these guns without fear, though use of +P ammunition will dramatically accelerate wear on these, particularly the open-top style guns. They should be fired with standard-pressure loads only.

Years ago my wife bought me one of these, a Cimmaron .38 Special Richards-Mason 1851 Navy conversion with a 7-1/2 inch barrel. It’s a well-made gun, and after I made a cross-draw holster it was my constant companion when hunting. Despite it’s rudimentary sights it was accurate and a real pleasure to shoot.  For some time it was my ambition to purchase another and convert it to a ‘belly-gun’ by shortening the barrel and converting the handle to a ‘bird’s head’ profile. Eventually I did the conversion on the original gun (see picture at top) and it has become my favorite revolver. Still a pleasure to shoot and as accurate as before (I improved the sights) but much handier. My wife Linda always found the gun too heavy with it’s long barrel, now loves to shoot it as well.

It is a bit more of a problem to reload since it no longer has an ejector, but until it gets quite dirty spent shells fall free with a tap on the cylinder, and I’ve never had one get so stuck that I could not flick it out with a fingernail.

One last thing- these guns are not modern firearms! It may not be safe to carry them fully loaded with six rounds. Leave an empty chamber under the hammer, just as you would with a Single-Action Army or other period/reproduction revolver.

If you are a Cowboy Action Shooting competitor, a history buff or just want a ‘cowboy gun’ that is a little different these guns are a cool option to a Single-Action Army or their numerous clones and near-clones.

 

 

Solid Gold Smiths…

Reading about prices in the S&W forum… ye gods! The prices are getting insane for some of these guns. You’d need to be wealthy to get into collecting S&W revolvers these days! I suppose it’s not too surprising given that S&W wants $700+ for a basic, plain-Jane new Model 10! But a four-screw K22 going for over $6000 at auction? Wow.
 
My interest in S&W revolvers re-ignited when Linda bought me a pair of top-breaks last summer, one in .32 S&W and one in .38 S&W (dated about 1884…) These are double-action spur-hammer guns and she got the pair for about $225. In the past almost every gun store around here had a top-break or two languishing in their case. Generally these were ‘lesser’ brands of suspect quality and were quite cheap. Like most people I never gave them a second thought,  but I was impressed with the silky-smooth triggers and overall mechanical quality of these S&Ws. The were worlds and away better than the offerings of Ivor Johnson, US Revolver and others I was used to seeing. Checking around I discovered that while stocks in the stores had largely dried up S&W top-breaks were readily available and often quite reasonably priced online.
Shortly I set my sights on the Safety Hammerless model, particularly the rare Bicycle models with a 2″ barrel. That dream got squashed pretty quickly; these guns are priced right out of my reach! The I saw a cut-down 2nd model Safety Hammerless that had been parkerized and fitted with a Pachymer grip- a Steampunk Snubby!  Linda picked up a pair of 4th Model guns from Gunbroker (and learned to never bid on two guns of the same type at the same time…)  These guns are in no way rare or collectable (yet) so I had no compunctions about bobbing the barrels and fitting mine with a custom ergonomic grip. Linda’s gun has original Mother of Pearl grips, so we’ll fit it with a T-grip and the pearls eventually. For now it’s wearing a Hogue grip.
These little guns are great shooters (though ammunition is painfully expensive) and their character and quality have seduced me… but how many top-breaks does one really need? There is a rough-but functional .32 Double Action available at the moment for $50; modifying and refinishing this is a tempting project at that price.
All of this has gotten me looking at old S&W revolvers in a new light– and brought me to the realization that I have come too late to the game. The guns are mostly priced out of reach… My saving grace is that a local gun-shop gets in a lot of estate and consignment guns, mostly shooter-quality guns at prices that are at least not insane.
Now we have a .38 Special 1905 M&P hand-ejector on lay-away. It was stupid-cheap because its collector value is shot. The gun is ‘ruined’ because it was bead-blasted and refinished at some point, but it’s mechanically excellent and has the best trigger I have ever felt on any revolver. If this is a ‘ruined’ gun I’ll take them all day long, and thank you very much! I don’t care if a bunch of collectors turn their nose up at it– I buy guns because I want to shoot them, so a ‘collector’ gun would be wasted on me anyway.
I do mourn the fact that most of the new S&Ws are out of reach, but lets face it- modern revolvers are mechanically complicated, and that means they are mostly going to be expensive. I’ll just have to settle for ‘undesirable’ old guns and some of the offerings of the like of Taurus, Astra and Rossi for my revolver fixes.  I think the top-breaks and ‘rough or ruined’ guns are going to go up eventually as people look for alternatives to the sky-high prices of the more desirable guns, but for now we average Joes can still get them.