Monthly Archives: November 2020

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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Face-Lift Follow-Up

I’ve learned a bit more about this gun, and been to the range this morning so there is fresh information. The slide is not wartime production; it’s a post-war replacement slide made by  MKB MFG CORP, sometimes called a ‘hard slide’ because… well, because it’s harder than the earlier slides. The barrel and slide are both marked 5129,and the marking is very professional; it seems possible that whoever manufactured them provided them as a set, but with no identifying marks or serial number on the frame there’s no telling… yet. I still have feelers out for more information.

At the range this morning I brought five of the magazines that came with the gun, four seven-shot mags and one eight shot. I brought two loads- one a light 185gr XTP JHP load and the other a 200gr. LSWC, more of a mid-range load.

The 185gr. load is too light; the slide usually didn’t recoil far enough to engage the slide-stop, and occasionally would not go fully into battery when loading the next round. Accuracy was acceptable, though I was testing for function and not focusing on it. The gun consistently shoots a bit low.

7 yards at a one shot per second cadence, with a center-hold on the paper. Acceptable, if the 185gr loads were powerful enough to reliably cycle the gun.

The 200gr LSWCs were much better in that they cycled the gun reliably. Accuracy was acceptable. The gun shot a bit low again, so I will be lowering the front sight slightly.

& yards, one shot per second, this time with the 200gr. LSWCs. On the whole it’s a little low, and the pulling to the right was all me.

Last I did a magazine of double-taps. On the first one the second shot hit just below the paper, and on the second double-tap the second bullet clipped the bottom. I corrected my grip and suddenly the last two double taps were dialed right in. Nice!

I put a total of 150 rounds downrange, including the under-powered 185gr. loads, and I like the new configuration. I’ll modify the front sight a wee bit to bring the point of impact up, but that will be it for now.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 5 November 2020

Time for a Face-Lift… 1911a1 Mods

A good few years back a friend came to dinner, bringing a 1911a1 in a box, fully disassembled. He’d put it together a decade before and sent it off for a green Teflon coating that had been all the rage at that time. While he had been waiting to get it back he had become a ‘Glock Guy,’ and had never gotten around to reassembling it, and sheepishly admitted he’d forgotten how… would I mind?

I grabbed us some coffee and after a couple minutes the gun was back together. He then produced several extra magazines, a magazine pouch, holster, several manuals and said, “Merry Christmas.” It was nowhere near Christmas, of course, but I got the point. I thanked him profusely and we had a nice dinner and a good evening.

The gun was a Frankengun, with a WW2-era slide, a surplus frame of some kind, with GI sights and controls. It had Pachmayr grips and a Pachmayr arched mainspring housing, a beavertail grip safety, commander’s Hammer and a target trigger… and it was green. Baby-shit green; the picture really doesn’t do it justice. Trust me.

For some time the only modification I made was to the grip, using my secret finger-groove method to produce a single groove immediately under the trigger-guard. OK, it’s not much of a secret- I super-glued a piece of eraser to the grip-frame and stretched the Pachmayrs front-panel over it.

Good shooter- rapid-fire at seven yards is easy to control, and at that range the GI sights aren’t much an issue.

I have a large hand, so the next modification was a flat mainspring housing from Caspian, courtesy of my friend Jim. Between this and the finger grove I enjoyed this gun quite a bit more. It has a very good trigger; not ‘Steel Challenge’ good, but a good weight with minimal over-travel and a fast, positive reset. It’s also been very reliable; I can’t remember a single malfunction in 500-600 rounds. Ball, SWC, hollow-points, it just doesn’t care. But those sights!

I love a good 1911, but between the ugly green finish and poor sights this one wound up not getting a lot of range time. Eventually I enlarged the notch on the rear sight and modified the front sight a bit, and it was… less bad.

The other day I was finishing up work and thought, ‘Why don’t I stipple the mainspring housing? Gives a better grip, and it’s not rocket science…’ I pulled the housing, chucked it up in a small bench vise, grabbed a center-punch and hammer and went to town. The result was really nice, but it was… sparkly. Yeah, no. I disassembled it and dropped it into some Ferric Chloride for a 1/2 hour or so. That gave it a nice matte gray finish, and I reassembled the housing and installed it. All to the good. But those sights, and that slide…

There was one entirely functional modification I wanted- to bevel the magazine-well. Not that this had ever been a problem, but it’s a good thing to have; gives you just a little margin for error when doing a quick reload.

This photo shows the beveled Magazine well– just enough to make rapid magazine changes a bit more forgiving.
Here’s the flat mainspring housing after stippling and etching with Ferric Chloride. You can also see the flat-topped and refinished slide and new sights.

The ugly green coating was not the only cosmetic issue. While there is no faulting the interior machining of the slide the outside looks like it was finished with coarse sandpaper. Look, I get it. They were in the middle of a world-war; it needed to work. Who gave a crap if it was pretty? I needed better sights anyway so what the hell; might as well fix it..

I drove the rear sight out of it’s dovetail- no mean feat, as it was basically painted into the gun- and ground off the staked GI front sight. I flattened the top of the side on the belt-grinder, then got out my 10″ Diamond Hone sharpening stone and went to work getting it really flat. I repeated the process on the flats on the sides of the slide, then using a small triangular file I carefully removed the coating from the slide serrations. I sanded the upper curved surfaces of the slide as well, but made no effort to fully finish them. I also left the recoil-spring housing under the barrel and the back of the slide green to match the frame, producing a two-tone finish.

I stripped the finish from the modified rear sight and re-installed it, then moved on to the front sight. I know big, fat front sights are the fashion, but back when I was shooting IPSC I always likes a narrow front sight; it didn’t slow me down and gave me better precision on the rare long-range shots. I used a cut-off wheel to make a slot in the front of the slide, the cut and fitted a piece of brass plate and silver-soldered it in place. I cleaned up around the sight, then cut it to my best guess for the correct height. I tried to err on the side of making it too tall rather than too short; easier to adjust by removing material.

After that I sanded the exposed metal with 240-grit paper and rust-blued the slide using Mark Lee #1 Instant Rust Blue. I reassembled the slide and put the gun back together. I don’t know how much better it’s going to shoot, but it seriously looks better!

There’s a bit of color to the blue; I suppose I could have done a few my cycles of rust bluing, but I don’t mind it; gives it a little character.

Now that the green is restricted to the lower half of the gun I find I don’t so much mind it. I’ll take it out the the range in the morning as see what’s what, but I have to say I really like the changes. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship…

Michael Tinker Pearce, 4 November 2020

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