On with the project! When we left off I had the gun essentially finished but for the abbreviated loading lever and front sight. Good thing that I had one to practice on, because I messed up the one from my gun. So I took the loading lever from my friend’s gun and went to work on it. First I bored a 3/16″ hole down the length of it, mounted it and marked the tip of the cylinder axis pin and drilled a 3/32″ hole in the end of that. I took a piece of 3/16 inch steel rod, chucked it up in the drill-press and turned the end down to 3/32″, then polished it to insure it would slide freely and engage the 3/32′ hole in the cylinder axis pin to lock things firmly in place.
I made a cross-pin out of a pair of nails and secured it, slotted the loading lever to accommodate the cross-pin. The retaining assemble was then trimmed to length, inserted with a coil spring and pinned in place with a 1/16″ brass escutcheon nail. The head of the nail acts against the barrel as a stop when the loading lever is closed, and is held by spring-pressure when it is open. It can easily be pried out with a fingernail or knife-edge for disassembly.
Here’s the gun, finished but for the front-sight.
Close-up of the loading-lever latch. To open the loading lever grasp the pins on either side, pull forward and down. Reverse the process to close it.
Loading lever in the open position. It can actually be used to load the cap-and-ball cylinder, or will make for quick and easy loading of the cartridge cylinder. This is a fully drop-in piece, so I will finish the other cylinder-axis pin with a more conventional set-screw, and my friend can choose which system he wants.
So, the next part of the project is to mount the front sight on this gun and convert my friend’s gun.
Addendum: Done except for front-sights and a little finishing work.
Here are some detailed shots of the retaining mechanism for the loading lever.
A couple of items that I have been waiting for arrived today- a pair of Pietta 1858 New Army Remington .44 Revolvers. These areÂ cap-and-ball guns; loaded through the front of the cylinder and set off by a percussion cap set on a nipple at the rear of the cylinder. According to the BATF these are ‘non-firearms’ and so may be freely shipped between individuals. The upper gun with the white Ivory Micarta handles belongs to a friend; the lower with the wood handles is a brand new gun that I took in trade.
I don’t know how long my friend has had his gun, but has long wanted it converted into a ‘belly-gun.’ Basically a snub-nosed revolver with a bird’s-head grip. A number of people have made these and I have to admit I always thought they were nifty. I had offered to do this for my friend, and since these are technically not firearms there are no legal issues with my doing so. Not wishing to risk doing anything irreparable to my friend’s gun I set to work on mine first for practice.
The first step is disassembling the gun. The loading lever, grips and cylinder are removed.
Next I cut the barrel to the desired length- in this case 3 inches. I finished the end of the barrel and re-crowned it, then on my belt-grinder I carefully re-ground the frame to a bird’s-head profile. I then placed each grip on the frame in turn and marked the new contour on it in pencil. I ground away the excess wood and re-shaped the bottom of the grips. The grip location-pin was ground away in the re-profiling of the frame, so I will have to drill a hole in the frame for a new pin and drill the inside of the grips. This keeps them from shifting under recoil.
Mounting the grips I sanded them to match the back of the grip-frame, then removed themÂ andÂ re-dyed them to match the original color. I applied a penetrating acrylic sealer and when that was dry I lightly buffed the grips. I cleaned and de-greased the muzzle and back of the grip-frame and blued them with Van’s Instant Blue, then cleaned the gun thoroughly. Normally at this point in such a conversion I would drill and tap a hole in the wide part of the cylinder axis pin for a set-screw to secure it against recoil, mount a front-sight and the gun would be finished… but I had a cunning plan.
My friend has a drop-in cylinder to fire .45 Colt cartridges. Yes, the gun is called a .44 but the bore diameter is actually .452. To load this cylinder it must be taken out of the gun. The cylinder axis pin is normally retained by the loading lever, and if I did a standard ‘belly-gun’ conversion he would need to loosen the set-screw with a screwdriver each time he wished to change cylinders to load it, which would be kind of a pain. So I removed the spring-catch from the loading-lever and shortened the lever to the length of the barrel, then re-shaped it slightly to look nicer. I think there is a way to mount a spring-catch in the cylinder axis pin to keep the shortened loading lever from flopping around when the gun is fired. If so this would make reloading much easier as the cylinder axis pin could be removed in the normal manner. This has the added advantage tat the lever might still be used to load the cap-and-ball cylinder. Â It may not work, and if so I can always finish his gun in the normal way and just order a new cylinder axis pin for my gun.
By this point it was already quite late, and I just didn’t feel like tackling something that complicated, so we’ll leave that for next time.
There’s a lot of ‘conventional wisdom’ in the gun world that just ain’t so.Â Two that come up a lot are ‘Damascus-Barrel Shotguns aren’t safe’ or the variation, ‘Damascus-Barreled shotguns are unsafe with Smokeless loads.’ The other that has gotten a lot of discussion lately is ‘Revolvers designed for Black Powder are unsafe with smokeless loads.’
These claims are not necessarily true or false. The fact is that no one can tell you if your gun is safe over the internet. That being said let’s address these nuggets of ‘conventional wisdom.’
Starting with damascus shotguns the first thing to say is that any antique shotgun should be thoroughly examined prior to firing it, period, regardless of the composition of its barrels. Chambers should be measured for length and diameter, and examined for pits, bulges, rings, rust and cracks. Bores should be examined for the same, using proper instruments. Barrels should be examined externally for rings, bulges etc. The mechanism should be tight and free of cracks. On double-guns the barrels should be rung; a clear tone indicates a solid join between the barrels. Buzzing or vibration indicates separation of the central rib, which might be caused by hidden bulges and in any case is unsafe. There are other things that a good gunsmith can look for, and having a ‘new’ antique examined by a competent gunsmith is highly recommended. A mirror-bright bore in an antique is a warning sign that they barrel may have been honed, possibly to the point that it is too thin to be fired safely. In these cases it is vital to have the wall thickness of the barrel and chamber measured.
Another thing to be wary of is that many guns had shorter chambers than modern guns. 16-Gauge and 12-Gauge were both offered in shorter lengths than the standard 2-3/4 inch we are familiar with today. Shooting modern 2-3/4 inch shells in these guns can result in unsafe pressures, and many older guns have had their chambers rebored to longer lengths, which can result in excessive thinning at the throat of the chamber, which can render the gun unsafe. If you load your own you can load-to-length, so a shorter chamber does not, in and of itself, mean that you should not shoot the gun.
Regarding damascus barrels there is a lot of mythology about them. Some claim that these barrels were never intended for smokeless loads. Given that many manufacturers specifically stated that their guns were safe to shoot with these loads and had them ‘Nitro-proofed’ seems to give the lie to this. To this day the British Proof House will proof a damascus shotgun for smokeless powder. Â Damascus MythologyÂ is well worth reading on this topic. The common wisdom- fostered by manufacturers at the time- was that modern steels were superior to damascus. In fact the transition from damascus to modern steel barrels was done less because the modern steels were superior than because they were easier and cheaper to manufacture.
In the early years of this century Sherman Bell did a series of articles in the Double Gun Journal called ‘Finding Out for Myself.’ As part of this series he tested a number of damascus-barreled guns, some of them in dreadful condition, with modern 18,500 PSI proof loads. None of the barrels or chambers burst. Standard 12 gauge loads typically run between 6200 and 13000 psi, with most of them clustered towards the middle of that range. When he tested a damascus gun to destruction it took a load over 30,000 psi to burst the chamber.Â Typically when antique shotguns burst their chambers or barrels it is because a) the bore was obstructed, b) the barrel was rendered too thin by over-honing or c) an over-pressure hand-load was used.
Now, I am not going to tell you that you can shoot your damascus shotgun safely with modern loads. Some antique guns are safe to shoot, some are not. Some of those antiques have damascus barrels, some don’t. You need to have your gun properly examined before shooting it, period.
One thing I will say- if you have had your antique gun examined and determined that it is safe to shoot you would be well advised to shoot low-pressure loads through it. Not for fear of bursting the chamber or barrel, but because high-pressure loads will accelerate wear on your gun, and it has already had a working life-span or two under it’s belt. Also, if your gun isn’t nitro-proofed it might be prudent to restrict yourself to black-powder (or BP substitute) loads just to be on the safe side.
Now, regarding revolvers designed for black-powder loads the same advice applies. You should have the gun examined carefully before firing it. Check that the hammer locks positively and securely at both half and full-cock. Make sure that the cylinder locks properly in each position, both single and double-action. Ensure that the cylinder-gap is not excessively large. Check to make sure the cylinder does not have excessive end-play. make sure that the bore and chambers are in good condition. Look for erosion of the forcing cone and frame. It really is best to have the gun examined by a competent gunsmith and if there is any doubt don’t fire it, period.
Regarding black-powder and smokeless loads- it’s complicated. Some guns designed for black-powder can be shot with modern loads, some can be shot with some modern loads but not others. This is, however, a highly individual thing, and needs to be handled on a gun-by-gun basis.
That being said guns designed for .22 rimfire, even the oldest, can usually be fired with modern CB caps safely if they are in good condition. These rounds fire balls or light bullets propelled only by the primer, with the sort of velocity usually associated with pellet gunsÂ rather than firearms.
Where this question comes up in particular is with guns made during the period of transition between Black and smokeless powder. Specifically top-break revolvers in .38 S&W and .32 S&W (short.) These calibers were initially loaded with Black Powder and spanned the transition to smokeless powder. S&W addressed this issue in a 1909 letter, in which they stated that all of their guns were safe to shoot with factory smokeless ammunition, but caution against using hand-loads. Since this time we have developed a wealth of information about hand loading these cartridges, but during the transition some people tried to replace BP with a similar volume of smokeless powder, with predictably disastrous results.
Modern cartridges sold in this country are loaded to SAAMI standards. Reading their website it is apparent that these standards are designed so that standard-pressure cartridges canÂ be used safely in any gun (in good condition) that is designed to chamber that cartridge. With regard to current factory loadings in .32 & .38 S&W, these are less powerful than the original black-powder loads for these cartridges. On the Smith and Wesson forum many people report that they have fired modern loads in guns dating back as far as the 1870s without any damage to the guns. I haven’t seen anyone there report that they have damaged their guns shooting these loads, either. As long as the gun is in good condition and you are firing the round it is chambered for there shouldn’t be an issue. The exception to this are .38 S&W loads made by Buffalo Bore. These are effectively +P loads, and are designed for good-quality solid-frame guns or Webley top-breaks. They will not necessarily blow up a good S&W top break, but they are not recommended for them and it would be wise to take the manufacturer at their word.
Again, Neither I nor anyone else can tell you if your gun is safe to shoot over the internet, and if there is any doubt you need to err on the side of caution. Again, using low-pressure loads will preserve the life of your antique firearm regardless of the caliber.
In the end it is up to you; you’re an adult. Exercise due diligence and common sense, err on the side of caution and don’t trust something just because you read it on the internet… including this article.