Wolf on Conversions
Rambling of an Old Cowpuncher: What the heck is a Conversion? I frankly confess that my interest in guns of the American frontier stems from watching Cowboy and Indian movies during the 1960s. It took a couple of years before I realized that the good old Colt Single Action Army Model of 1873 was not the only revolver carried around in the American West. When Spaghetti Western hit the market in earnest during the early 1970s Terence Hill carried his Colt 1851 percussion Navy in NOBODY but Clint Eastwood cleaned and loaded a 1851 Navy with cartridges in the 1960s blockbuster THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY?
So, some of my heroes preferred percussion revolvers over SAAs but others took C&B revolver look-alikes fed with cartridges from the breech side to the final show-down?!
Somewhat puzzled I invested in books like THE BOOK OF COLT FIREARMS by Sutherland & Wilson, to learn more about the evolution of these front stuffers to breech loaders. Having finally seen the light I am pleased that quite a few of the newer cowboy movies pay close attention to the historical correctness of equipment but also the guns toted by the actors.
New life was instilled into this scheme during the late 1990s when Italian replica makers Armi san Marco and Uberti launched their perceptions of Colt Richards, Richards-Masons, Open Tops and even Thuer conversions. At first I handled my then new ASM 1851 and 1860 Richards or Uberti OT and RM at the turn of the century pretty enthused. But this has changed gradually to a more pragmatic attitude once I had the chance to compare these conversion clones side by side to originals and could get hold of my copy of R. Bruce McDowell’s conversionistas’ bible A STUDY OF COLT CONVERSIONS AND OTHER PERCUSSION REVOLVERS. That was the time I finally decided to have some of my Centaures custom converted by the great conversion artist Karl Nedbal of Vösendorf, Austria.
You will have noted elsewhere that these conversions are a subject close to my heart. However, and in some fairness, I will address it from different angles. But a caveat is in order here: This is going to be a personal and very subjective page with a few drops of semi-scientific window-dressing. So shake well before swallowing. And it will eventually lead to the Belgian Centaure C&B pistols and their conversions.
|Tom Selleck’s Colt Richards (top) in LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER. Colt Open Top (below) from CROSSFIRE TRAIL (picture courtesy Mike Beliveau Etter/PA)|
Pistols that Tamed the West & Added Spice to Modern Western Movies: Contrary to what most Hollywood or Italy’s Cinecittà Western movies want to make us believe the good old Colt Single Action Army was not the hand gun that tamed the Wild, Wild West. Because from after the end of the Civil War through the 1880s it was the big bore C&B revolvers and their conversions that were the commonly carried pistols in the US West and Southwest. The SAA was way too expensive for the poor cowpunchers and the Army got priority delivery for years after its launch 1873, anyway.
The story of these conversions is confusing and seems to be contradictory often. Although well maintained originals are rare today the interest of collectors and cowboy shooters in these old working guns is growing constantly.
Once you scratched the surface some you will find a few talented US conversion artists who discovered this emerging niche market. They began making quality conversions for display, shooting or both from around the 1980s in small numbers. More smiths have joint their ranks to this day on both sides of the Atlantic. Early on base pistols of these smiths were mostly 2nd or 3rd gen. Colts when Colt Army conversions were to be made, but also Italian replicas were used, particularly when their clients wanted a Remington Army conversion. From the late 1990s the replica industry entered this market with its own conversions as well.
So it is time to take a fresh look at the story of these conversions back then and today.
|Like this R&D drop-in conversion Clint Eastwood’s Remmie in PALE RIDER did neither feature a loading channel in the recoil shield nor an ejector (picture courtesy Mike Beliveau Etter/PA)|
When it comes to the historical correctness of guns used in movies collectors and shooters alike can be a sensitive breed. Westerns are no exception here. It does not come as a surprise then that conversion aficionados showed their appreciation to a few US cowboy movies featured on the big screen or TV during the last decades because the heroes or their opponents did not tote the good old SAA, but S&W Schofields or Remington 1875 Armies. Only some were using period correct Colt, Starr or Remington conversions. Below is my personal top list of “Conversion Movies”.
# Do you remember Clint ”the Preacher“ Eastwood 1985 in PALE RIDER? Do you recall this cool scene during the show-down where he exchanged the empty cylinder of his Remington Army Armory Conversion for a loaded one? Incidentally, his pistol was altered for use with blanks at Stembridge Gun Rentals in Glendale/CA.
# 1997 Tom ”Paul Cable“ Selleck’s received above nicely engraved Colt Richards Army (top pistol) with ivory grips as a gift from his movie wife & gunsmith in LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER. Four years later 2001 as ”Rave Covington“ in CROSSFIRE TRAIL he carried above Colt Open Top (bottom pistol). Both these Colt conversions were executed by US conversion artist Kenny Howell.
# Also Viggo “Everett Hitch“ Mortensen, Ed ”Virgil Cole’s“ Harris’s side kick 2008 in Appaloosa, had a hankering for a Colt Open Top. He got no custom made piece but a regular Uberti replica only.
# Likewise poor rancher Christian ”Dan Evans“ Bale and his son Logan ”William Evans” Lerman had to do with a regular off the rack Uberti. They made good use of this beaten, blued finish Colt 1851 Navy Richards-Mason Conversion in the 2007 remake of 3:10 TO YUMA against the bad boys of Russel ”Ben Wade“ Crowe’s gang.
|Original Colt Navy 1851 Richards-Mason conversion #3280 with nickel finish (picture courtesy Collectors Firearms, Houston/TX)|
Other movies prominently featuring Colt conversions are e. g. 1976 Clint ”Josey Wales“ Eastwood with a Colt 1861 Navy Richards-Mason Conversion in the opening sequence, or Chief “Lone Watie” Dan George with a Colt 1860 Army Richards Conversion in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, or Robert ”Augustus McGrea“ Duvall 1989 with his Colt Walker Conversion in my all time favourite cult mini series LONESOME DOVE from 1988.
|LONESOME DOVE: Gus McGrea teaches the bar keeper a lesson with his Walker conversion 1989||Same Walker conversion on display at The Wittliffs Collections, Texas State University, San Marcos 2012|
Thank you, Hollywood, for your responsiveness. You did well. But do it again soon, please, like you did 2011 with COWBOYS & ALIENS. We like to see more westerns with such historically correct armament even if you add a couple of aliens for good measure.
Where does this growing interest in conversions come from? Is this a fading trend or a solid development? Possibly due to more historically correct guns in recent westerns? Or have the markets for more traditional fields of gun collecting like ”Hand Guns of the US Civil War“, ”The Evolution of Colt C&B Revolvers“ or simply ”Single Action Armies“ dried up, did it become too boring? Or have the prices for original percussion revolvers or 1st gen Colt SAAs gone through the roof, are the guns no longer affordable for us collectors on average income and hence the switch to conversions?
Probably a little bit of everything and the desire to own a pistol that is different, with lots of historical flair. And that’s what these pistols of the transition from percussion front stuffers to breech loading cartridge guns offer a lot and to spare of.
Since most of these conversions from the 1870s saw a lot of action and only few well maintained originals survived there is another burning question that needs to be addressed: ”How about the dimensional correctness of the conversions available today from the replica industry and from the few conversion artists in the USA and Europe?“
|Armory and gunsmith conversions (top down): 2 Remington Armies, Remington Navy, Starr SA Army conversion|
The Transition Period in Historical Perspective: Who made the conversions back during the days?
They could be had “standardized” from the original manufacturers like Colt or Remington, or as small sized, semi-standardized conversion programs from the armories of the military. But more often they were the jobs of small gun shops or gunsmiths on the frontier and South of the border. Under the motto “The customer is always king” even a few old Colt Patersons were converted to breechloaders back then. Let’s take a copter’s view at this transitional period with the hat on of the Colt CEO after the Civil War.
Converting a Model 1860 C&B pistol to Breech Loading is a Simple Affair: Turn down the nipple section of the percussion cylinder but keep the ratchets, bore through the cylinder for the .44 caliber cartridge of your choice, install a conversion ring, with a loading gate if you wish, modify the percussion hammer to ignite your cartridge type, i. e. rim fire (RF), center fire (CF) or even pin fire and you are ready to go. Fitting an ejector for convenience would be nice to have, too. That was the basic principle of a conversion after the Civil War.
Flat Sales of Revolvers’ at Colt’s after the Civil War: Technically by the end of the Civil War 1865 percussion guns were obsolete. The future belonged to standard cartridges no matter if it was for a rifle, shot gun or pistol. They functioned much more reliable due to their positive ignition, were less affected by humidity, reloading was much faster, low risk of overcharges (!) after the practical experience with European and US systems. However, the high prices of these modern cartridge guns and their ammunition compared to percussion guns prevented their fast and wide distribution in the United States and at the Western and Southwestern frontier in particular. Add to the pricing issue repeated short supplies of center fire cartridges you get the idea.
The Colt factory had to address a number of peculiar issues before they could bring competitive breech loading revolvers to the market. They just did not expect this dramatic stop of the booming C&B revolver business after the Civil War. Now only very few customers required or could afford to buy an Army conversion pistol or even a more modern breech loader for big bore cartridges from Hartford. What had happened?
|2 modern .44 Colt cal. Colt 1860 Army pattern Richards-Mason Army conversions: top Centaure RNMA #6176 converted 2009 by Nedbal, bottom Uberti #X02711 assembled 2002. Note beefed-up frame, barrel lug and cylinder diameter of Uberti|
# Government armories were overloaded with big bore percussion revolvers. Many were sold as surplus guns at dumping prices.
# Many veterans took their guns home with them after the war. They were simply not available as potential buyers of revolvers.
# Breech loaders like the S&W American made from 1870 where way too expensive for the poor cowpokes or settlers, compared to a Colt 1860 cap & baller. Their design was unusual, many perceived them less reliable compared to the proven C&B revolvers. In addition S&W had limited production capacity available. But every buyer of a S&W American dropped out as a potential buyer for a Colt made revolver.
# On the other hand the proven Army and Navy conversion designs of Remington were well accepted by cost-conscious ranchers, sheriffs, Texas Rangers, or the US Ordnance Department as volume procurer for the Army.
# Before making a breech loading revolver Colt had to cope with a legal and a commercial issue. The commercial production of modern cartridge revolvers with bored through cylinders meant acknowledgement of the Rollin White patent from 1855 and therefore millions of $ of licensing payments to Smith & Wesson or White. This, the management was not prepared to do because the patent was to expiry already on April 3, 1869!
# To make things worth as the major weapons supplier of the Civil War Colt had built-up a huge inventory of parts for the production and repair of their C&B revolvers. Neither did they want to write that off nor could they afford it.
# To kill these two birds with the proverbial one stone Colt’s were faced with the challenge of developing an ingenious revolver design that would use up most of their parts inventory but at the same time would not be covered by the Rollin White patent, and would therefore not incur licence payments. Only once this complex objective was accomplished an innovative blockbuster design for a breech loading revolver was to be realized, after the expiration of the patent in 1869.
# Of the period before 1869 a couple of experimental guns of Colt percussion revolvers with bored through cylinders are known, like a 3rd Model Dragoon in .44 Henry RF caliber, an 1860 Army featuring design elements of the later Open Top, or an 1861 Navy chambered for .38 RF rounds. Although most of this work led to useful breech loading designs Colt could not capitalize from these revolver developments.
# For Colt’s the solution of this dilemma was first the introduction of the Thuer design revolver as a cartridge front loader to circumvent the Rollin White patent, later
# the well perceived Richards and Richards-Mason breech loader conversions. By way of the Colt M 1871-72 Open Top these developments led directly to the famous Colt Single Action Army Model of 1873.
# This transition period spans a time of 8 years only beginning with the development work on the Thuer system in 1866 and ending with the introduction of the Single Action Army in 1873.
“You can never have enough 1860 Armies” voiced a wise US pard and he is right. Like him I enjoy the graceful lines of this great cap & baller and add … ”particularly as a period correct quality conversion shooting smokeless inside lubed .44 Colt cartridges”.
As already pointed out in my opening chapter this is going to be a personal and very subjective page. No offence meant.
Three Options for Modern Colt Army Conversions: If you want a modern made Colt Army conversion these days it seems you only have three options:
#1: Have one custom made by one of the conversion artists in the USA or Europe. At your request they will convert the C&B replica revolver of your preferred manufacturer. What you are getting after a few months is usually a period correct, esthetically pleasing display pistol, or a shooter or both. Of course, this will all depend on your wish list, the responsiveness of the gunsmith to your requests, and the dinero you are prepared to spend. For such a piece of art like the Colt Richards with ivory grips of actor Tom Selleck as Cavalryman and would-be homesteader in LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER above be prepared to invest a lot.
This relatively young market niche for newly made conversions might have been initially triggered by demanding US CAS competitors searching for pistols matching their 1870s characters’ better than the venerable Colt SAAs or a simple pair of C&B revolvers. The number of smiths capable of such work has been steadily growing in the USA since the 1980s. Good news for the shooters and collectors on the Eastern bank of the big pond there are also a few now in Europe, too.
|Italian 1860 with non-gated 5 shot drop-in cylinder in .45 Colt (pics courtesy Mike Beliveau Etter PA)||Close-up of the drop-in cylinder|
#2: Do-it-yourself using a commercially available drop-in cylinder with or without loading gate on your replica. If you are in the USA and technically talented you will eventually have a functional shooter resembling a Colt conversion of the 1870s … from a distance like above non-gated Army conversion without ejector housing.
The pards & pardettes in the European arena are suffering from the many and different gun regulations in their countries. To comply with their national laws they will probably have to muster the services of a knowledgeable and licensed gunsmith for such an installation. Once the smith has fitted the cartridge cylinder to the C&B pistol the clients must x their fingers that the local proof houses will finally apply their stamp of approval to the conversion.
#3: When in a hurry you can buy a conversion pistol made by a reputed Italian cowboy gun manufacturer. You’re getting a very functional shooter “on steroids”* with factory warranty.
*respectfully adopted quote from Michael Venturino!
|Front view of conversion cylinders Uberti (left), Centaure (right) after some shooting fun||Top view of same conversion cylinders: note gas ring of Uberti compared to PC Centaure|
Regarding option #3 and to the best of my knowledge currently only Uberti in Gardone/Italy, subsidiary of the Beretta folks, makes conversions of Colt Army, Navy and Remington clones or the Open Top in various calibers, grip and barrel configurations, plus the Man With No Name pistol which is a clone of a conversion that never was. The other major maker in that market was Armi san Marco. They dropped out of the race around the turn of the century after quality issues.
I owned a few of these Uberti conversions in the modern inside lubed .44 Colt caliber and loved them. Why? Because they are rugged and reliable shooting irons.
|Uberti Richards Transitional #X04444 in .44 Colt calibre … before the PC long ejector rod was installed as free of charge factory replacement|
I used a pair of their long barreled Open Tops with Army grips as main match pistols during the 2008 season. They worked well for me. My 2002 vintage Uberti Richards-Mason Army and Richards Transitional (RII) pictured above of 2003 production got their regular diet of my light CAS nitro loads behind 200 grainers … until I replaced them with Centaure conversions.
Like the originals from yesteryear modern 1860 pattern pistols of quality makers will hit what you are aiming at … once you have bottomed out the arbor and adjusted the sights to proper height.
|Comparative barrel view Centaure RI (left) vs Uberti RII (right)||Although these Uberti conversions look like C&B revolvers converted to fire cartridges they are actually constructed as cartridge firing pistols for regular loads (no P+, please!), hence their beefed-up frames, cylinders and barrels. These strengthened parts will not interchange with the respective C&B revolver models and vice versa. The steel used in the making of these conversions is harder than the alloy of their C&B brethren for a reason.
Uberti is probably well advised to stick to that concept of beefing-up critical parts, using harder steel like for their SAAs and state of the art production technology. That provides for conversions and Open Tops that are considerably stouter than their originals from the 19thcentury, which in turn keeps the customers happy and the lawyers off their back.
In addition it provides a simple platform to make these pistols in other, possibly more powerful but calibers not historically correct like .45 Colt or .44 Special to please the shooters. Because their cylinders are scaled up. They will not only accommodate 6 rounds of .44 Colt, there is now enough diameter for 6 rounds of wider rimmed.44 Russian and .44 Special, the fatter 45 S&W or the larger.45 Colt.
Thoughts about Ammo for Colt Army Conversions, the 1971-72 Open Top & their Modern Clones: Let’s talk about the ammo for a minute! The diameter of the rebate section of an original model 1860 Army cylinder or one of her clones is smaller than its forward area. We know that this is due to the Army’s lineage from the 1851 Navy. That being the case how can you load 6 cartridges of .44 cal. into the chambers of an Army conversion cylinder?
|Repro cartridge box for modern .44 Colt rounds loaded with 200 gr inside lubed bullets over smokeless powder||Comparative view of modern .44 (left) and .45 Colt rounds (right)|
The simple truth during the second half of the 1860s, the 1870s and 1880s, and today is this. If it is your objective to stick to the original dimensions of an M 1860 type Army conversion you need a .44 cal. cartridge with a rim that is smaller than what we are used today from the .44 Russian, the more modern .44 Special or .44 Magnum, and surely smaller than the various .45 cal. revolver ammos available like .45 S&W or .45 Colt, see pictures above and below. This consideration led to the development and eventually the introduction of the good old .44 Colt center fire (CF) cartridge. This round was officially adopted by the US military between 1871 and 1873 for the Colt Army breech loading conversions. Later it was gradually replaced by the more powerful .45 Colt for the Colt Single Action Army. At the Western and South Western frontier of the United States of A the old .44 Colt round was a trusted and respected revolver cartridge for decades not only with the military, but also farmers, cowboys and the men of both sides of the law.
|Smaller rim of .44 Colt vs. 45 Colt||During the early decades of the 20thcentury Colt breech loading Army conversions and the .44 Colt were widely used again. They saw action in great numbers in the numerous skirmishes of the Mexican revolution between 1910 and 1929. As a result the cartridge was manufactured until WW2 with black powder as well as smokeless loads.
Colt Army factory breech loading conversions and most Model Army pistols altered to fire cartridges at the frontier were chambered for the .44 Colt center fire rounds.
The Long Cylinder Conversion of the Colt Army allegedly fabricated sometime after the end of the Civil War South of the Border, and the Colt Open Top M 1871-72 were chambered for another .44 caliber round. These 2 breechloaders were chambered for the battle proven rim fire cartridge .44 Henry and its successor the Stetson .44 Henry respectively. Back in the days this was very popular and readily available ammo thanks to the Henry rifle and the Winchester 66. Model 1860 type Long Cylinder Conversions and Open Tops could accommodate this ammo because they came with a specially made cylinder without the typical Army rebate. Their cylinders were straight, with an identical diameter at the front and breech side.
|Period .44 Henry RF ammo box|
Compared to the .44 Colt CF the .44 Henry RF is the more powerful round of the two when launched from a revolver with 7,5” or 8” tube. The .44 Henry deserves to be remembered for another important aspect, rarely mentioned in gun literature or books on the Wild West! Since you could load this round in the afore mentioned pistols and rifles the concept “one type of ammo fits all“ was reality almost 10 years before the famous combo of Colt SAA Frontier Six-Shooter and Winchester 73 in .44-40 cal. hit the market in 1878! As you can see on above picture on the left these two traditional Western cartridges used outside lubed bullets of heel type. This implies that case and visible bullet diameter are more or less identical. Consequently boring through a C&B cylinder for such cartridges was a simple and cheap affair since no special chamber had to be cut.
The latter is usually needed when you are dealing with a round with an inside lubed bullet instead, like modern big bore cartridges. Without such a properly sized chamber you end up with a huge amount of “overbore” in the cylinder before the bullet hits the forcing cone and engages the rifling. You literally have no seal.
Specifications and data of the two old cartridges are displayed in below table. Left and center column shall serve as orientation only. Because during the 19thcentury their manufacturing was not such a standardized and certainly not an automated process as it is today. Hence dimensions and power would differ between their various cartridge makers but also from batch to batch.
source C.I.P., Erlmeier, H. A./Brandt J. H.:HANDBUCH DER PISTOLEN-UND REVOLVER-PATRONEN/MANUAL OF PISTOL AND REVOLVER CARTRIDGES, Starline Brass/Sedalia, Wikipedia
One other observation regarding the venerable .44 Colt and the .44 Henry ought to be mentioned here. According to the research of the conversion guru R. Bruce McDowell the nominal rifling groove diameter of the vintage M 1860 tube was .451. This indicates that the bullets of the .44 Colt are likely and bullets of the .44 Henry are definitively undersized. This further implies that neither the energy nor the accuracy potential of the rounds was fully used but gas leakage was significant. Which is in contrast to our today’s understanding that a close fit of bullet, chamber mouth and rifling groove diameter is desirable. What could have been the rational back then?
I found two groups of thoughts regarding this subject.
# Over the years production tolerances in the bore making of Colt 1860 barrels might have been considerable. Looking at the issue from this angle undersized bullets are acceptable if you bear in mind that military tactics suggested volleys instead of aimed fire back then. Now the statement “function is more important than accuracy” or as the Austrians put it “the deterrent effect is considerable” makes a lot of sense.
# A number of US collectors and shooters suggest undersized bullets were used as an additional safety measure to prevent bursting barrels. This comment applies to both the C&B type and conversion pistols.
To substantiate the latter thesis chamber mouth and rifling groove diameters of model 1860 C&B pistols of all 3 Colt generations, Italian clones of Armi san Marco, Armi san Paolo/Euroarms, Pietta, Uberti and the Belgian FAUL Centaures were measured. Please, note some surprising findings.
- Chamber mouths diameters of all Colt generations and most of the Italians are smaller than their respective rifling groove diameters. Theexception arePiettas of more recent production. The Pietta people seem to strive for uniform diameters.
- The remarkably wide range of rifling groove diameters around the magic .451 found in Colts of all generations but also in the Italians was noteworthy.
- The Centaures measured have a close fit of the diameters of chamber mouths and rifling groove diameters over thehole production period.
The modern .44 Colt cartridge, see above table, right column, only has its name in common with the old one. Technically it is a .44 Special but .050″ shorter with a smaller diameter rim same as 41 Magnum.
Particularly re-loaders from the CAS fraction who are shooting by the 1000s rather than by the 100s like this modern .44 Colt round yours truly included. Not only can you use readily available 44 cal. components but the straight cartridge case design lends itself to be reloaded in today’s semi-automated multiple stations presses, without messing up the equipment with the outside lubed bullets.
Today’s .44 caliber Colt Army conversions fabricated by Italian replica makers are chambered for this modern round. You can fire these .44 Colt rounds from pistols chambered for .44 Special or .44 Magnum, like a .38 Special will work in a .357 Magnum revolver … but not the other way round, please.
|The War Dept. aka the best wifey of them all engages the steel buffalo over at the Bar H Ranch in Clarendon ,TX, with yours truly’s Henry chambered for .44 Special but loaded with the trusted .44 Colt smokeless ammo|
Did you note my reluctance to comment on modern Army conversions in calibers other than .44 Colt? Admitting to my opportunistic semi-purism I just don’t feel they are right … even if they seem to work … ‘cause I love the smokeless .44 Colt rounds … in my conversions, SAAs and rifles! This round is highly accurate, too, see above at the long range … and at the short range below, too (2011 Annual Shoot of the Canadian River Regulators – bullet splitting contest)
WDN/April 3, 2013
© 2007 Wolf D. Niederastroth