In the 1860's Smith & Wesson had planned a top-break .44 caliber sixgun firing fixed ammunition, however this project was tabled until after the war. Smith & Wesson had already been producing tip-up revolvers, that is revolvers that were hinged at the frame in front of the hammer, and unlocked at the bottom of the frame in front of the cylinder allowing the barrel to actually tip up in order to remove the cylinder for loading and unloading. This relatively weak design worked with the .22 Rimfire and .32 Rimfire cartridges for which it was chambered, however for more powerful cartridges a stronger design was necessary. The result was the beginning of Smith & Wesson's Model #3 revolvers which where hinged at the front of the bottom part of the frame and unlatched at the top of the frame in front of the hammer. These were the first Smith & Wesson break-tops.
The first big bore cartridge firing sixgun manufactured with a bored through cylinder emerged as the .44 S&W American in 1870. It was first chambered in .44 Rimfire, the same ammunition as used in the Henry Model 1860 and Winchester Model 1866 leverguns. The United States Army, equipped with 1860 Colt cap-n-ball sixguns since the Civil War, decreed that the cartridge be changed to a .44 caliber centerfire, the .44 S&W. Three years before Colt had their first sixgun firing fixed ammunition, Smith & Wesson received a military contract for 1,000, six shot, top break, American revolvers using centerfire cartridges.
Smith & Wesson held the Rollin White patent for bored through cylinders. Until S&W began utilizing this patent revolvers were of the percussion type, which were loaded from the front with powder and ball and then a percussion cap placed on the nipples at the back to the cylinder. The first manufactured big bore sixgun with a bored through cylinder was the Smith & Wesson in 1869 with production models arriving in 1870, however, two years earlier Smith & Wesson agreed to allow Remington to convert some of their New Model .44s to a cartridge .46 Rimfire in a bored through cylinder. More than 4,000 of these converted Remington's pre-dated Smith & Wesson's American.
Smith & Wesson had produced the first cartridge firing revolver with the Model #1 .22 in 1857. Sam Colt strongly believed shooters would always prefer percussion revolvers allowing them to load their own. After the arrival of that first cartridge firing revolver Colt would produce the 1860 Army .44, the 1861 Navy .36, and the 1862 Police Model .36. Even though Sam Colt died in 1862, Colt continued to concentrate on percussion revolvers as well they might since they had a large government contract for the 1860 Army. However, after that Civil War it was obvious the cartridge firing sixgun handwriting was on the wall.
During the late 1860's the Thuer Conversion was performed on approximately 5,000 Colt cap-n-ball sixguns. Remington had agreed to pay a royalty to Smith & Wesson to use bored through cylinders, and either Colt would not or Smith & Wesson never offered. So Colt still had to get around the Rollin White bored-through cylinders patent held by Smith & Wesson. What is very strange is the fact White worked for Colt before going to Smith & Wesson, which means Colt could have had the first chance at the patent. Then again, maybe they didn’t want it. Thuer's invention altered the cylinder of percussion revolvers to allow a tapered cartridge to be inserted from the front end. It was not tremendously successful.
Colt had thousands of parts on hand and the U.S. Army had thousands of percussion sixguns. Richards' patent was used by Colt to convert cap-n-ball sixguns to the new fixed ammunition style. Colts with the Richards Conversion are easily recognized by the ejector rod extending past the back of the ejector rod housing about one inch. Remington conversions are also encountered as the backs of cylinders of both Remington and Colts were cut off and a new section, a backplate, was fitted or a completely new cylinder was built to accept rimfire cartridges.
In 1872, Colt introduced their first big bore cartridge firing sixgun, which looks much like the basic 1860 Army cap-n-ball, as an open-top frame, .44 rimfire chambered sixgun. When the Army announced testing to adopt a new revolver in 1872, Colt's entry was the 1871-72 Open-Top chambered in .44 Colt. The Army was not satisfied telling Colt they wanted two major changes, the caliber increased to .45 and a frame with a solid top strap. Colt engineers, William Mason in particular, went back to the drawing board with the result being one of the all-time great sixguns, the Model of 1873, the Model P, the legendary Colt Single Action Army. Had it not been for the United States Army we may never have seen the Peacemaker. It took some time and several missteps but when they did it, they finally did it right. The classic sixgun of all sixguns, the Single Action Army is still in production as an original Colt by Colt, an excellent all American-made United State Firearms Single Action, and also by several Italian manufacturers.
The Cartridge Conversions are a short-term but most important part of sixgun history spanning the time frame from Colt's 1851 Navy and 1860 Army percussion revolvers to the Single Action Army. In the early days of movies, especially those made between the two World Wars, it is not uncommon to often see original Henry rifles and Remington revolvers along with Colt Single Actions. Several of the higher budget westerns of the 1930s and 1940s strived to be historically correct, however most of the B westerns used Colt Single Actions and Winchester lever actions no matter what time the setting of the story happened to be. (How many movies have been made with Winchester 94s made to look like Henry Models by simply removing the forearm?) With the profusion of Italian replicas of almost every revolver and lever action rifle from the 19th Century, technical directors of movies can now more easily be historically correct. More and more movies, especially those made for television, are using not only Colt Single Actions when appropriate, they are also using Remingtons, Smith & Wessons, and Cartridge Conversions if the story happens to take place after the Civil War and before the advent of the Peacemaker.
The original Colt Cartridge Conversions built mostly on 1851 Navy .36s and 1860 Army .44s were for the .38 Long Colt and .44 Colt, rounds that used a heel type bullet, that is a bullet whose base was smaller in diameter than the rest of the bullet. This resulted in a bullet that was the same diameter as the outside of the case much like today's .22 Rimfire rounds. One has to stand in awe of the genius of the gun makers of 150 years ago when these Cartridge Conversions are examined. The cylinders had to be altered or replaced by a cylinder with a loading gate and new breech face and a rear sight built into the top. Quite often, instead of being done by the factory, conversions were performed by the local gunsmith or blacksmith, and they did it routinely without electricity or modern machinery. A forge and a file was basically all they had.
Charles Richards was an assistant factory superintendent at Colt and was awarded three major patents for breech loading firearms including the Richards Conversion in 1871. Existing cap and ball cylinders were cut off at the back to allow the installation of a conversion ring that would accept cartridges: "My invention relates to that kind of revolver which has a chambered breech or cylinder. It has for its object to provide a compact and cheap form of this kind of arm, which shall be fitted for the convenient use of a flanged metallic cartridge, and it is particularly useful as furnishing a means of converting of a revolver constructed and intended for loose ammunition into one adapted for that kind of metallic cartridges which are loaded into the chambers from the rear." To complete the conversion, the rammer for seating round balls over the powder charge was removed from beneath the barrel of an 1860 Army and replaced by an ejector rod and housing on the right side for removing spent cartridges. A loading gate at the rear of the cylinder swung open for loading and unloading. Many 1860 Army Models were returned to the factory to be converted both from civilians and the U.S. Army, and others were produced as new sixguns at the factory. Among the various conversions, First Model Richards Conversions are recognized by the rear sight on the conversion ring and an ejector rod housing that stops about one inch in front of the face of the cylinder. With the arrival of the Second Model Richards conversions, the conversion ring, hammer, and loading gate were all improved, and the rear sight was moved from the top of the conversion ring back to the V-notch cut in the hammer as found in the original 1860 Army cap and ball revolvers. The Richards Conversion was about to become the Richards-Mason Conversion. William Mason was superintendent of the armory at Colt from the mid-1860s until the early 1880s when he moved over to Winchester. He would be responsible for the improvements on the Richards Conversion, the 1871-72 Open-Top, and of course the Colt Single Action Army.
While Richards Conversions were obviously alterations on 1860 Army Models, the Richards-Mason provided a completely new barrel with a provision for a longer ejector rod housing. They are easily distinguished from the Richards Conversions by the web shape under the barrel, as it is boxier with a completely different profile, and most importantly, the Richards-Mason Conversion has a regular cylinder with no conversion ring. For more in depth information about Colt and Remington Conversions, I highly recommend “A Study of Colt Conversions” by R. Bruce McDowell, Krause Publications, 1997. It is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in old Colts.
The one drawback to the Richards-Mason Conversion compared to the First Model Richards is the placement of the rear sight. Without the conversion ring, the rear sight could not be mounted there so the less desirable path of placing it back on the hammer was taken. When Mason re-designed the Richards-Mason Conversion to become the 1871-72 Open-Top, the rear sight was placed upon the barrel, and when the U.S. Army nudged him into coming up with something better after the Army trials of 1872, the result was the Colt Single Action with a Remington-style top strap and the hog wallow rear sight that could not get out of alignment.
Single Action Sixgun history would not be complete without the Cartridge Conversions as they are the bridge from Colt's percussion revolvers to the Colt Single Action Army, the legendary Peacemaker. As we have mentioned, for decades western movies featured Colt Single Action Armies, no matter if the time frame was right or not, almost exclusively. Once in a great while, a Smith & Wesson or Remington would show up but these instances were very rare. Now it is not at all unusual to see Cartridge Conversions in recently made movies such as Crossfire Trail or Last Stand at Saber River as movie makers strive for more authenticity. Original Cartridge Conversions were real workin' sixguns and those remaining from the 1860's and 1870's show evidence of being well used. Those that spent hard-earned dollars to convert their cap and ball sixguns did not suddenly discard them when the Colt Single Action arrived. Today we live in a throw away society in which money has very little value. It was quite different 140 years ago. Dollars did not come easy and firearms had to last. The conversions performed on cap and ball revolvers gave the owners of these sixguns a great return for the money invested.
Richards’ Conversion was performed on revolvers returned to the factory, percussion revolvers already on hand in Colt’s inventory, and some 1860 Army Models were assembled as Richards Conversions without ever being made into percussion revolvers. The Richards-Mason Conversions were more encompassing being performed on 1851 Navy, 1860 Army, and 1861 Navy percussion parts in factory inventory, as well as such revolvers returned to the factory for conversion plus small frame conversions were done on the various Colt pocket pistols. These conversions were performed throughout the 1870s as .36 and .44 percussion revolvers were too valuable to scrap simply because the Colt Single Action Army had arrived. Richards Conversions on the 1860 Army were still in use by the military in the 1880s. From the very beginning 1860 Conversions used a .44 centerfire cartridge while the Navy Models used both .38 Short and .38 Long in rimfire and centerfire versions.
Most Cartridge Conversions were used hard and for a long period of time. Even if one finds Conversions in good shooting condition they normally command collector prices as well as being chambered for ammunition no longer available. Thanks to the replica industry shooters can now enjoy this period sixgun as Colt Cartridge Conversions are being offered by Cimarron in both an 1851 Navy and 1860 Army version. Cimarron originally offered both the Richards and Richards-Mason Conversions, however the former is no longer available. Unlike the originals, these sixguns are for reasonable and smokeless powder loads and black powder loads rather than for black powder only.
As we have noted, the original Colt Cartridge Conversions were chambered for rounds that used a heel type bullet or a bullet whose base was smaller in diameter than the rest of the bullet. To keep things simpler for today's shooters, the Cimarron Cartridge Conversions take an easier path. The 1851 Navy is chambered for standard .38 Special loads, or .38 Long Colt loads, which are available from Black Hills Ammunition. The 1860 Army Conversion required the resurrection of an old cartridge, the .44 Colt in modern form. Today's .44 Colt is simply the .44 Special trimmed back from 1.16" to approximately 1.10", and since the diameter of the cylinder of the 1860 Army is too small to accept six .44 Special rims with a diameter of .514", the rims are also trimmed. Properly head stamped .44 Colt brass is available from Starline.
For loading the .44 Colt, .44 Special dies can be used if they have enough flexibility to neck expand and crimp. If they don't, the bottom of each die can be trimmed accordingly. Today's .44 dies, most of which are designed to handle both .44 Special and .44 Magnum, will probably be too long for the .44 Colt.The easier way is to order .44 Russian dies from RCBS and then one is set up to load both .44 Colt and .44 Russian. The standard shellholder for the .44 Russian/.44 Special/.44 Magnum works but is larger than the necessary for the rims of the .44 Colt, however a .30-30 shellholder works fine. The original loading for the .44 Colt was 28 grains of black powder. In modern solid head brass, I use 25 grains by volume measure of Goex's FFg, FFFg, Cartridge, and Hodgdon's black powder substitute, Pyrodex in both the P and Select grades. Both the .38 and .44 Colt Cartridge Conversions are used with smokeless loads and black powder handloads, however the 1851 Navy in the .38 caliber binds up quickly with black powder but can be kept running fairly smoothly using black powder substitutes such as Pyrodex and Triple Seven. Seventeen grains of Pyrodex P in .38 Long Colt brass from Starline averages 860 fps and shoots into 2" at 50 feet. This is right with today's .38 Special loadings. My bullet choice for the .38 Long Colt is Lyman's #358212 150 grain round-nose lubed with Lyman's Black Powder Gold. Magnum primers are always used with black powder loads in this case being CCI's #550.
Cimarron's 1860 .44 Colt Cartridge Conversion handles both factory and smokeless powder loads well and as an extra added bonus no problems are encountered with black powder loads in the .44 Colt. Using RCBS's #44-200 FN .44-40 bullet lubed with Lyman Black Powder Gold and seated over 25.0 grains of Goex FFg yields a muzzle velocity of 770 fps and a five shot group of 1 1/4". The same amount of Pyrodex Select, by volume, raises the muzzle velocity to 839 fps and a group of 1 7/8". It is obvious users of the original Colt Cartridge Conversions were well armed.
The 1851 Navy has the grip frame that eventually became the Colt Single Action grip with little or no change while the 1860 Army Conversion carries the longer and more comfortable grip originally found on the 1860 Army. Original Colt Cartridge Conversions were available with either grip frame. Thousands of Colt percussion revolvers were produced from 1851 until Smith & Wesson brought forth their first big bore cartridge firing sixgun in 1870, which was soon followed by the Colt Single Action Army in 1873. When these two newer guns arrived most of the first guns went to fill military contracts.
Even if a civilian had the money and wanted to buy one they were not immediately available. It would only be natural for the owner of a cap-n-ball sixgun shooter to advance to a cartridge firing revolver by going the conversion route. At an age when money was very hard to come by, and a brand-new sixgun would cost from $15 to $20, it was possible to have a sixgun converted for just a few dollars. In this day and age when money seems to flow so easily we sometimes forget this was not always the case. If we need something immediately we only have to reach for the plastic card in our wallet. Things were not so easy on the Frontier and Cartridge Conversions were very sound economically speaking. They definitely filled a need.