Monthly Archives: April 2020

The .44 that was a .45- .44 Colt

The Colt Richards conversion of the 1860 Army

In the mid 19th C. a fellow named Rolin White patented a clever idea. Bore all the way through the cylinder of a revolver so that it could be loaded from the rear with a metallic cartridge. He tried to interest Colt in his idea, but they saw little utility in it. The burgeoning firm of S&W, however, thought it was a grand idea and purchased the rights to the patent. From then until 1870 S&W enjoyed a monopoly on practical cartridge revolvers, which they defended enthusiastically and, more important, effectively.

In 1868 Colt’s chief competitor, Remington, gritted their teeth and licensed the rights from S&W, for the princely, and then not insignificant, sum of $1 per gun. They introduced factory conversions of their revolvers, at first in rimfire calibers and later in .44 Remington Centerfire.

By 1870 Colt was well behind the technology curve and was eager to launch their own cartridge revolver… but they were saddled with parts for thousands of percussion revolvers like the 1860 Army. The solution, devised by an employee, was to turn down the back of the cylinder around the sprocket, then bore it through to accept a cartridge. Add a breech-plate with a loading-gate to take up the material that was removed, include a provision for a firing pin and voila! You have a cartridge revolver.

.44 Colt

The first thing about the original .44 Colt is that it wasn’t. Forty-four caliber, that is. The bore of an 1860 Army revolver is actually .452, like a modern .45. But the Colt’s cylinder was too small to accept a cartridge with the bullet recessed into it; the case needed to be the same outside diameter as the bullet. Because of this the round uses a heel-base bullet, where the back of the bullet is smaller, approximately .430″, so that the base may be seated inside the case, while the tip is sized to the bore at .452 to .454.

Heel-base bullet. The base is smaller to fit inside the cartridge case, while the protruding portion is the same outside diameter as the cartridge case. The recessed ring is to hold lubricant, which, being outside the case could pick up dust or lint; not an optimal solution! Among modern cartridges only .22 rimfires still use heel-base bullets.

On firing the soft lead of the bullet’s base would be deformed and expand to fill the bore and engage the rifling. The round was called .44 Colt because the revolvers it was used in were called .44s (even though they were .45s.) Similarly .44 Remington also used a .452 heel-base bullet, and was of similar length. Some sources say otherwise, but comparing the cartridges side by side I cannot see any reason they would not work interchangeably.

.44 Colt was loaded with either a 210 gr. or 225gr. heel-base round-nose lead bullet, over 23-28gr. of powder. This gave muzzle velocities in the neighborhood of 650fps. and muzzle energy of about 206-207 ft.lbs

The cartridge worked reasonably well, but it was not without problems.For example the ring of lubricant was located outside the case, where it could, and did, pick up dirt, dust and lint etc. It could also get messy at high summer temperatures. The other issue was less with the cartridge than the guns that fired it. With the lock notches on the outside of the cylinder located directly over the chambers the metal there was paper-thin, and very often blew through in use. This left the cylinder with a hole in the bottom of the notch, which seems rather unsafe in theory. In practice, however, people continued to shoot these revolvers for decades, so apparently these holes didn’t matter.

The US Army briefly adopted the .44 Colt, but replaced it only a few short years later when the Colt 1873 Single Action Army was introduced, in the conventional and much more powerful .45 Colt.

.44 Remington (left,) .44 Colt and Remington (center) and .44 Colt. .44 Remington had a thinner rim, which leads some to state that .44 Colt could not be used in Remington revolvers, but the ‘aftermarket’ .44 Colt and Remington worked in either, despite having a rim basically as thick as the Colt’s.

Even though the Colt Richards and Richards-Mason conversion revolvers were the only guns officially chambered in .44 Colt, the cartridge remained in production until the outset of WW2. Heel-base bullets work well with black powder, but rather less well with smokeless powders. They also only work really well with soft, almost pure lead bullets. As a result attempt’s to modernize the cartridge were less than ideal. As the guns that fired it, already hopelessly obsolete, were retired, demand for the cartridge was almost non-existent… for a time.

.44 Colt’s Resurrection

Do to the popularity of movies and to an even greater extent television Westerns, the guns of the old west experienced a boom in popularity during the 1950’s and 60’s. The Colt 1873 was in production, but was quite expensive, and a number of Italian firms stepped in to offer lower-cost alternatives, including percussion revolvers and eventually cartridge conversions. For some reason, apparently in the 1970s, they decided, in the interest of historical authenticity, to reintroduce conversion revolvers chambered for the .44 Colt, but without the problematic heel-base bullets. These new guns used conventional bullets of .430″, with bores to match. Ironically original-style .44 Colt rounds cannot be chambered in these guns, so the attempt to recreate history was a bit dubious. These guns, sold by Cimarron and others, remain in use today, and ammunition is made by Black Hills.

The original .44 Colt still has it’s adherents, and molds for casting heel-base bullets, reloading dies and the bullets themselves are also available.

Reloading .44 Colt

Whichever flavor of .44 Colt you are using, reloading is not difficult. Modern .44 Colt is reloaded like any other modern cartridge. If you wish to do the original with heel base bullets it’s really not much harder, basically amounting to an extra step at the end.

Heel base bullets are available if you look around a bit, or you can cast your own. I used to swage mine from soft lead ‘cowboy’ bullets, but recently I’ve found a simpler method. Buffalo Bullets offers a 180gr externally dry-lubed bullet specifically for percussion revolvers.

These bullets taper towards the base to be loaded into the cylinder, and I’ve found that I can use them quite easily in .44 Colt. Resize, prime, flare the case, stick the bullet in and seat it. works a treat, though the heavy coating of dry-lube makes a bit of a mess. So far just like loading a modern cartridge, but there is one more step- the crimp. The bullet may seem to be in there nice and tight after seating, but trust me- it will ‘walk out’ under repeated recoils and jam things up.

Crimping requires a special collet-crimp, and the one sold by Old West Bullet Molds is just the thing. It’s $50, but if you want to load this cartridge it’s a bargain. Simply run the bullet up into the die and it will crimp a ring around the case just below the rim, which will hold the bullet in place perfectly.

.44 Colt, loaded with Buffalo Bullets 180gr RNL. You can clearly see the crimped ring produced by the Old West Bullet Molds collet-crimp just below the bullet.

I loaded these cartridges with the 180gr. Buffalo Bullets RNLs, over a charge of 17.3gr of Hodgden’s Triple-7 FFFg powder, with a Federal #100 primer. Triple-7 is a black powder substitute and, as when loading black powder, you cannot have air space between the bullet and powder. This can result in detonation, which will break your gun or worse. Unlike black powder, however, you want very little compression of the powder. This load, with the bullet seated very deep, allows about 1mm of compression, which experience has shown me is about right.

Triple-7 tends to give higher velocities than a comparable charge of black powder, and between that and the light-for-caliber bullet I was curious to see how it would come out.

Shooting .44 Colt

I set up my target at five yards- a piece of pressure-treated pine 4×4. I put the chronograph at about ten feet from the muzzle and fired a string of three shots. Normally I do strings of five, but with everyone stuck at home I wanted to minimize the chance of annoying the neighbors.

So how does this load shoot? Mighty fine if I do say so myself. Recoil was not heavy, and the three bullets completely penetrated a treated pine 4×4. All three bullets were found between the 4×4 and the backing.

Three shots stacked up neatly at five yards. I used the first bullet hole as the point of aim for the second, and the second bullet hole as the point of aim for the third All three blew right through the 4×4.
The degree of deformation of the bullets varied wildly. I suspect the bottom left bullet was the first, so the wood was somewhat ‘tenderized’ by the first hit, and the top bullet might be the third shot after the first two tore up the wood. Two of the three have visible marks from the rifling all the way to the base of the bullet. The other is too mangled to tell.

The gun used in the test is an Armi San Marco 1858 that I converted, and this was the first time I fired it. The gun has a 3-3/4″ barrel.

The chronograph showed an average velocity 838fps. for 281ft./lbs of energy, with an extreme spread of only 8 fps. Three is a small sample group, but that’s pretty remarkable consistency.

This is significantly more velocity and energy than the original load produced from barrel twice as long as this one. I don’t think I would use this load in an original gun; I’d be more inclined to use FFg black powder in that case; it’s a fair bit less energetic. For this particular gun and my uses, however, I’m very pleased.

The Gun

As mentioned the gun used is a custom Armi San Marco 1858 Remington reproduction. I just completed this gun, and aside from firing primers to function-test it I had never shot it. I’ll show and tell through pictures:

With a bit of cutting and welding I reshaped the handle into a profile resembling a Colt Bisley revolver, and lowered the hammer-spur to work in conjunction with it.
The grips are made from Bolivian Rosewood, hand-sanded to 3000-grit then polished with 0000 crocus cloth before receiving a light coat of lacquer.
I mounted a new barrel, shortened to 3-3/4″, then shortened the rammer and installed a latch to engage a groove in the front of the cylinder pin. This retains the pin while holding the rammer in place. The bronze front sight is visible in a variety of lighting conditions, and in what I can only attribute to divine intervention seems to be about as dead-on as one could want.
usually the breech plate on a conversion is sized on the cylinder. I sized this one on the blast shield. Gives it a subtly different look, and allows me to see if the gun is loaded at a glance.
There is no loading gate, just a port cut in the breech-plate and blast shield on the frame. This has not been problematic in other conversions I have done.

So, the load performed well, the gun performed well- going to call this one a Win. I’ll be doing more testing with different bullets and bullet weights, and maybe some actual black powder down the road.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 April 2020

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More Hunker Games- Load Development and Slow Guns

I can’t properly go shooting while we’re in isolation, but I can do a little shooting on the property if I don’t overdo it and annoy the neighbors. Having recently completed the 1848 cartridge conversion it seemed like a natural time to work up some .32 S&W loads.

.32 S&W

Like many cap-and-ball .31 reproductions the bore is rather over-sized (I’ve seen undersized ones too.) This means that jacketed and even some hard-cast bullets don’t get a good seal in the bore, causing low velocities, leading and sometimes key-holing (when the bullet doesn’t hit the target squarely.) This plays havoc with accuracy and penetration.

The traditional solution is the use of a hollow-base bullet, these days most often a Hollow-base Wad Cutter (HBWC.) The problem is those are pretty scarce in .32 caliber, and while a few companies used to make them they’ve all pretty much stopped.

I ordered some 73gr TCL hard-cast bullets from Rimrock, and as you’d expect they are great… in my Iver Johnson and S&W top-breaks. Out of the Baby Dragoon? Not so much. Really soft lead bullets will bump up to engage the rifling, but these are just too hard. Even at five yards they were yawing or key-holing.

Iver Johnson .32 Automatic Safety Hammerless (2nd Model.) It’s a good little shooter.

So, time to swage some bullets. How? Take a chunk of steel, bore a .310 hole in it, and lathe-turn a plug with a post on it to make the hollow base, and a rammer for the other end. These have to be super-snug in the holes. Insert the plug, insert the bullet (or thick lead wire) and hammer the rammer in on top of the bullet. Remove the rammer and used a brass drift to drive the bullet and plug out. Rinse and repeat. It’s not fast, but it will do for short runs of bullets.

My original 58gr. HBWC for ‘gallery loads,’ very light loads for indoor shooting. Normally wadcutters are seated flush with the lip of the cartridge, but .32 S&W is so short you really can’t.

I started with some 58gr bullets for ultra-light loads for indoor shooting. I’d show you the others, but frankly they look just like these, only slightly longer. These proved quite satisfactory when launched at very low velocity (478fps.) They were surprisingly accurate and not at all loud.

This is the gallery load mentioned above, and was shot at five yards with the Baby Dragoon. Quite satisfactory.

I had some thought that this gun might go out for some small-game hunting as well as target practice, so I figured some stouter loads might be needed as well. To that end I swaged some 77gr. soft lead HBWCs and upped the powder charge. Quite a difference! The velocity was much higher, both from the 3″ Iver Johnson and the 5-3/4″ barrel Baby Dragoon.

I’ll note at this point that I was using Alliant Red Dot powder, and there’s a good reason. When tested in shotguns this powder, loading the same weight of shot to the same velocity, exhibited basically the same chamber and down-bore pressure curves as black powder. It takes a lot more black powder to achieve the velocity, of course, but this would seem to make Red Dot a good choice for some black powder cartridges.

Here are the loads I came up with for the Baby Dragoon:

55gr. HBWC, 1.0gr. Red Dot, Fed #100 Primer 478 fps. 29 ft./lbs ES: 40

77gr HBWC, 1.2gr. Red Dot, Fed #100 Primer 841fps. 121ft./lbs ES: 44

Now it might seem odd that 0.2gr of powder would drive a heavier bullet so much faster, but there’s more to it than just weight and powder charge. Loaded to the same overall length the 77gr. bullet fills more of the case, which changes the burn of the powder. The soft lead bullet also expands to fill the bore more completely, using the pressure more efficiently. Based on recovered bullets, the 55gr. load barely engages the rifling, and the muzzle report is enough softer that it sounds like there is considerable ‘blow-by’ past the bullet.

I have some heavier factory wadcutters coming; we’ll see how they perform.


These weren’t the only surprises in store; when I got to .38 S&W things continued to go strangely. I recently purchased some 125gr LSWCs from Rimrock as well, and these are hard-cast and specifically sized for .38 S&W, which tends to run several thousandths larger than .38 Special/.357 Magnum. Rimrock lists the bullets as .360″, and my caliper said .361. Oh well, what .001″ among friends?

I’m trying a new powder, Universal. This is formulated for loading a broad spectrum of handgun cartridges, thus the name. Given the relative paucity or reloading data for .38 S&W I had to make some educated guesses, and initially erred on the side of caution and worked my way up. For test guns I used an Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless with a stock 3-1/4″ barrel and my S&W .38 Safety Hammerless with a 1-5/8″ barrel.

Iver johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless (2nd Model,) with a stock 3-1/4″ barrel and an ergonomic grip for my big fat fingers.

A pattern quickly emerged. All things being equal a longer barrel gives you more velocity, but in this case the shorter S&W consistently produced higher velocities. Apparently all things were not equal. The Iver Johnson is a ‘slow gun.’ This is not the first time that I have encountered this; initially in my ‘How Obsolete Are They’ tests I used a Harrington & Richardson, which also turned out to be a ‘slow gun.’ So, what makes a gun slow? In a word, its tolerances.

Harrington & Richardson 2nd Model (4th Change) top-break in .38 S&W. A ‘slow gun’ with modern bullets, but a bad gun? Not at all.

The tolerances in the bore are often measured by a process called ‘slugging’ the bore. Basically one takes an over-sized soft lead ball and forces it through the bore, and then measures it’s diameter. The H&R referenced earlier had a .365″ bore. Firing a hard-cast .361 bullet through this allowed a portion of the pressure to force its way past the bullet rather than driving it forward, resulting in a slow muzzle velocity. I slugged the Iver Johson, and the bore measured .361, so that was obviously not the culprit.

The next thing to check was the gap between the cylinder and barrel. This is about .006″, which I did not feel was large enough to create the loss of velocity I was getting compared to the S&W’s .004″. Checking the cylinder itself revealed the culprit; the chamber throats measured .368″. This allowed considerable blow-by past the bullet before it entered the barrel. By comparison the chamber throats and bore on the S&W measure dead-on .361, resulting in more consistent and higher velocities with modern bullets.

OK, you need to understand something about these guns. These are not bad guns, and their low velocities are not always issues with ‘sloppy’ tolerances. Yes, they are slow with modern hard-cast or jacketed bullets. But these are not the bullets they were designed to fire. When these guns were made .38 S&W was loaded with very soft bullets. The variances in the tolerances on these guns may be related to that fact. It didn’t matter if the cylinder throats were large, because the base of the bullet would easily expand to fill the available space. Likewise if the bore were a few thousands over diameter it was not a problem. There was also a theory in the 19th century that the best performance in a revolver was attained by having a large chamber throat, which the base of the bullet would expand to fill, and having the bullet swaged precisely to the bore diameter in the forcing cone. In an age were ammunition dimensions were often approximates there might be some merit to this idea.

So in some cases the fault lies not in our stars… er, guns, but in our ammunition. When used with soft lead bullets and a suitable charge these guns may not be slow at all. Yep, gonna test this.

.38 S&W

So, back to testing loads with Hodgden Universal powder. The first thing I notice was it’s brown; it looks like finely-ground medium-light roast coffee. OK, that’s weird, but not really relevant. I was able to find a few .38 S&W loads using Universal, but none with the weight and diameter of bullet I’m using. Time for some educated guessing. Comparing charge-sizes with Unique in several loads I figured a charge of 2.8gr. would be safe, but likely rather slow.,say in the mid to high 500’s in terms of feet per second. That seemed like the place to start. I worked up gradually from there to as far as I considered prudent in American antique top-break guns.

I’m omitting the results from the 3-1/4″ gun, as they proved slower than the shorter S&W for the reasons outlined above, all tests were from the 1-5/8″ S&W, and were five shot strings.

My custom S&W .38 Double-Action safety Hammerless (4th Model) with a 1-5/8″ barrel. A very sweet little gun, capable of surprising accuracy.

Rimrock 125 gr./.361″ LSWC, Universal powder & Fed #100 primers.

2.8gr. powder, 564fps, 88ft./lbs, ES: 11

3.0gr. powder, 598fps, 99 ft./lbs, ES: 15

3.2gr. powder, 626fps., 109ft./lbs, ES: 18

3.5gr. powder, 698fps., 135ft./lbs, ES: 19

The first two loads yield results very similar to modern Winchester and Remington factory loads, and ought to be reasonably safe in any gun in good enough order to be fired. The second two loads are likely to be safe as well, but guns vary and I would be leery of using them extensively in anything but S&W top-break revolvers or other high-quality guns, like Webley and Enfield service revolvers. Solid frame guns are generally much stouter, but a lot of very cheap, poor quality revolvers were made in the late 19th and early 20th C. Err on the side of caution, especially when dealing with guns of unfamiliar brands, or guns known to have been cheap when new.

I’ll be testing Universal with heavier bullets soon, but the loads above are more gentle on old guns. As long as you are sensible with your loads pressure is less a concern with antique guns than recoil, causing them to loosen up or break. The lighter bullets at modest velocities produce less recoil, but will still be perfectly adequate for target practice or small game.

As always, you use this load data at your own risk. The writer assumes no liability for the use or misuse of this load data. Only use these loads in a good-quality firearm that has been inspected to insure that it is safe to fire. When in doubt DON’T.

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Michael Tinker Pearce, 24 April 2020

Every Day Carry (EDC)

In the gun world ‘EDC” is common parlance for a gun you carry almost all of the time. Some take this very literally, and insist that this is the only gun you should carry. Ever.

There’s a certain logic to this; if you always carry the same gun it will be the one you are most familiar with, the most experienced with and it’s manual of arms will quickly become ‘hard wired’ skills. In any situation you will use the gun you will be familiar with reloads, clearing jams etc. Taking this logic a step further, it would be advisable to always carry the gun in the same holster, with reloads in the same place on your person. This is not the worst idea in the world.

There’s a slight problem… for many of us it simply won’t work. Not unless we are willing to completely re-engineer all aspects of our life around carrying that gun. What we wear, where we go, what we do, who we see and under what circumstances.

The Colt Junior .25 ACP- small and compact enough to be carried under almost any circumstances… and because of it’s very low-powered cartridge and the difficulty involved in shooting it well, it’s a very poor choice for EDC.

Most of us have lives that are largely the same from day to day. Most of the time we can select a gun that we can carry all of the time on an average day… but if that gun is your only option circumstances could easily arise that mean you will need to choose between being unarmed or not going.

The thing is we don’t all live the same life. If you are, for example, a Guide living in an area where open carry raises no eyebrows, your Ruger Super Blackhawk might fill your needs just fine. But even then… what about when you go to church? Visit family members? Go to a parent-teacher conference? Awkward.

Firearms have advanced to the point where is is easy to buy a very capable firearm that you can carry almost all of the time. The Sig P365 ticks all of the boxes for a lot of people, not surprising since it was specifically designed to fit the ‘one gun EDC’ paradigm by some very experienced, very clever people. Similarly the Glock 43, an air-weight S&W J-frame and many other guns fit the EDC role pretty well, depending on your abilities and your perception of your needs.

I have a single gun that works for me most of the time, and I carry it most of the time. I am intimately familiar with all aspects of it’s operation and manual of arms, I shoot it very well, and it is adequate for the sorts of threats I feel I am likely to encounter. I seldom go places where I cannot dress to conceal it without arousing comment… but it does happen. If circumstances dictated that I needed to wear a suit, lightweight casual clothing or be in protracted, close contact with a group there is a high likelihood that someone would notice that I am wearing it. Depending on the circumstances, this could cause issues that I would rather avoid. In those instances I have the choice of being unarmed or carrying something more discrete.

A compact magnum revolver might be a good choice for carry when hunting… but is it really your best option for running down to the store for donuts?

Being a long-time firearms hobbyist suffice it to say I have a lot of options compared to many people. Not all are suitable for concealed carry; some are in sub-optimal calibers, hold too few shots, are too slow to reload or are just too damn big. But I have a fairly encyclopedic familiarity with handguns, and with any suitable handgun I own I am confident that I could employ it effectively in the sorts of self-defense situations I feel I am most likely to encounter. But let’s face it, I am not most people, or even representative of firearms enthusiasts.

So, what’s a person to do? Of course if you only have one firearm you really haven’t got a choice. But if you are able to have more than one, your life conditions may make it prudent to do so. Say, a standard carry gun that fulfills most of your needs, and others to serve the rest of the time. It’s axiomatic that in a self-defense situation any gun is better than no gun, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some thought, and more importantly some training, into your ‘situational’ weapon or weapons.

For ultimate discretion it’s hard to beat an NAA mini-revolver… but a five-shot single-action .22 that’s so small it’s difficult to shoot well? Yes, any gun is better than none… but few would argue that this is an ideal choice when something more effective is an option.

If possible I would recommend that you employ guns with a similar or identical manual of arms. If you rode a dinosaur to school and EDC a 1911 .45, you might look at a Sig P238 as your more discreet option. It is not mechanically identical to your 1911, but operation, loading, unloading, clearing jams etc. require identical actions. Similarly if you carry a S&W K-frame revolver the smaller J-frame is an obvious choice for a more discreet weapon. Chances are whatever you carry most days, there is a smaller gun that has the same, or very similar, methods of operating it.

Whatever you carry, whether it is you ‘almost every day’ gun or a situational alternative, you need to practice with it. If it does not operate identically this is even more important. Practice does not just mean being able to hit a target or clear a jam, either. You need to practice how you carry it, how to access your reloads etc. and be aware of the limitations of those methods. If you just drop it in a pocket holster you need to understand that it will be slower to get into action, so you can work around that if you need to. The same applies to how you carry your reloads.

Experts are great. You should definitely consider their advice… but they don’t live your life, and their circumstances may be very different than your own. Their advice may not apply to every aspect of your life, and you need to bear in mind the specific needs, circumstances of your life and the threats that you feel you are most likely to need to deal with. Educate yourself, train with your weapons…. and most of all think.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 11 April 2020