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Exclusive: The First “Peacemaker”

Exclusive: The First “Peacemaker”

Cimarron Firearms Colt
1871-72 Open-Top

By John Taffin

By the time I was 17 I had acquired what I thought were the only two large- caliber, single-action revolvers manufactured by Colt after the Civil War. I had an original 1860 Army and a 1st Generation Single Action thinking I had all the bases covered, not knowing at the time there were actually four distinct Colt Single Action cartridge-firing sixguns developed between the 1860 Army and the advent of the Model P, the Peacemaker in 1873. In the late 1950s it was easy to find both 1860 Army Models and 1st Generation Colts in excellent shape for reasonable prices. At a time when I was making $1 per hour, each of my single actions cost me $90 or a little more than 2-1/2 weeks take-home pay. It is unfortunate I wasn’t smart enough to hang onto both of them.

When Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson brought forth the Model #1 revolver in 1857, Sam Colt probably paid little attention. Colt was busy manufacturing the Navy Model 1851 .36 cap and ball revolver, a serious sidearm for serious purposes. In actuality, the 1851 issued in the Age of the Gunfighter, and Wild Bill Hickock was still carrying his .36 percussion Navy when shot from behind in 1876. Smith & Wesson’s Model #1 was the first successful cartridge-firing revolver and chambered in what would become the most popular cartridge for both rifle and handgun, the .22 Rimfire. Three years after this first revolver using fixed ammunition, Colt would introduce the apex of percussion revolver development with the Model 1860 Army .44.

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Comparison of the 1873 Model P with the 1871-72 Open-Top.

Cylinders

Smith & Wesson’s original seven-shot tip-up revolver evolved through the Models 1, 1 ½ and 2 chambered in .22 and .32 Rimfire, and they had plans to bring out a larger .44 version. With the coming of the Civil War, Smith & Wesson was busy producing hideout revolvers, while Sam Colt procured a large contract to supply Model 1860s to the Union Army. Sam Colt knew the idea of fixed ammunition would never be accepted, as most people would always want to load their own revolvers with powder and ball. By the end of the Civil War, the Colt Company was in excellent financial shape, however, Sam Colt had died in 1862. Colt was ready to face the future, although very slowly.

Smith & Wesson held the patent rights for bored-through cylinders. Actually the patent belonged to Rollin White, an employee of Smith & Wesson, and Sam Colt had earlier turned down White and his patent. In 1866 Alexander Thuer began working on a way to circumvent the White patent. Colt examined Thuer’s idea in 1867, and in 1868 Thuer received a United States patent for loading revolver cylinders with fixed ammunition from the front. This required a tapered cartridge. Colt Walkers, Dragoons, Pocket Pistols, Navy Models and Army Models have all been found fitted with Thuer Conversion Cylinders.

By 1868 Colt was also working on bored through cylinders since the White patent was due to run out in April of 1869. Smith & Wesson would introduce the first successful large-bore, fixed ammunition, single action revolver in 1869 with the Model #3 American, a break-top, 6-shot .44. By 1871, the United States Army had ordered 1,000 Americans. Meanwhile at Colt, one of their employees, C.B. Richards, received two patents for a breech-loading firearm in 1868 and the Richards Conversion in 1871. “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 is particularly useful as furnishing a means of converting 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”.

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Cimarron Open-Tops with Buffalo Brothers grips and beautifully crafted
Slim Jim holsters by Walt Ostin of Custom Gunleather.

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Evolution of the Colt single action sixgun 1860-1873: Model 1860 Army,
Richard-Mason Cartridge Conversion, 1871-72 Open-Top and the 1873 Peacemaker.

Conversions

Richard’s method cut the back off percussion cylinders replacing them with a conversion ring. Revolvers were converted both at the factory and by local gunsmiths. With this method the 1860 Army was converted to the use of a centerfire .44, by the removal of the loading lever and its replacement with an ejector rod assembly. William Mason improved the technique with the Richards-Mason Conversion using a new barrel with the ejector rod assembly attached, instead of fitting the original barrel with an ejector rod.

It’s easy to tell a Richards from a Richards-Mason by the shape of the barrel underlug where it attaches to the frame. The former maintained the original 1860 Army flowing shape while the latter has a newer more square profile. The ejector rod assembly of the Richards-Mason also extends to the front of the cylinder rather than ending about one inch in front as on the Richards Conversion.

Both of these conversions were performed by Colt on new revolvers as well as retrofitting sixguns already in the field. In fact all three conversions, Thuer, Richards and Richards-Mason were being done simultaneously. Meanwhile, a fourth cartridge firing Colt revolver was about to arrive. All three conversions were done on existing percussion revolvers, however, a completely new firearm, the 1871-72 Open-Top, was built from the very beginning as a cartridge firing revolver. It does have the same lines as the 1860 Army along with the same open-top frame feature, however it was never a conversion. Chambered in .44 Rimfire, the Open-Top was offered with both 1851 Navy and 1860 Army grip frames, however they were fitted with brand-new bored through cylinders from the beginning.

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A comparison of the Single Action Army and the Open-Top. Notice the
difference in the mainframe, grip frame size and angle of hammer spurs.

U.S. Tests

When the United States Army called for tests to adopt a new revolver, Colt entered with the 1871-72 Open-Top .44 Rimfire. If the Army had accepted this design we may not have ever seen one of the greatest revolvers all times. The Open-Top was a great step forward but not enough for the U.S. Army. No revolvers were accepted in the first round of tests and Colt was sent back to the drawing board with two major requests. The Army wanted a solid frame revolver, or “Top-Strap” pistol such as the design of the Remington .44 Army percussion revolver; and they also wanted a more powerful round than the .44 Rimfire.

William Mason went to work on the design and the result was the Colt Single Action Army. We do know that serial #1 of the Colt SAA is a 7-1/2″ model chambered in .45 Colt, however there is disagreement on what caliber was first submitted to the Army for the second round of tests. Some sources say .44 Rimfire, others .44-40, and others the original .45 Colt. All three calibers were eventually found in production Single Action Army revolvers.

The 1860 Army has been around in replica form for about 40 years, and although Colt ceased production of the Single Action Army in 1941, they brought it back in 1956. Replicas of the SAA have been imported for several decades, however, thanks to the rapid rise of Cowboy Action Shooting, they have come closer and closer to the authentic look of the original Peacemaker. Cowboy Action Shooting has also been responsible for the availability of replicas of the Richards Conversion, the Richards-Mason Conversion, and the 1871-72 Open-Top. Cimarron has offered all three and even toyed with the idea of offering a Thuer Conversion. Currently Cimarron offers the Richards-Mason and the Open-Top.

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A pair and a spare from Cimarron: matched Open-Tops in .44 Colt with Model
1860 grip frames and Buffalo Brothers custom grips along with a .45 S&W
Open-Top with Model 1851 grip frame and Tiffany grips by John Adams.

Cimarron

I happened to be on a long road trip in 2001 carrying me through eight states, three weeks, 5,000 miles, two CAS shoots, a buffalo hunt and a rain-washed-out wild pig hunt. While attending Range War in Fredericksburg, Texas, I also had the opportunity to visit the Cimarron Firearms facility and come home with a pair of consecutively serial numbered 1871-72 Open-Tops chambered in .44 Colt.

The original .44 Colt round featured a heel type bullet the same diameter as the cartridge case except for a heel fitted inside the case. This would not be practical today, so the modern .44 Colt is simply a .44 Special cartridge case that has been slightly shortened with the diameter of the rim turned down to allow six rounds to fit in the 1860 Army-sized cylinders of the Colt Cartridge Conversions. The original modern .44 Colt ammunition offered by Black Hills was still head stamped .44 Special, however Starline offers correctly head-stamped .44 Colt brass and all factory rounds use Starline .44 Colt brass. All shooters who enjoy shooting the old single action sixguns owe a triple measure of gratitude to Cimarron Firearms, Starline Brass and Black Hills Ammunition.

Acquiring and firing original Richards Conversions, Richards-Mason Conversions, and 1871-72 Open-Tops would be cost prohibitive for most of us. Thanks to these three companies we can all connect to the past and enjoy shooting the revolvers in replica form with modern ammunition. Who would have ever thought we would see factory ammunition and sixguns chambered for .44 Russian, .44 Colt, and .45 S&W again? Both Black Hills and Ten-X offer all three of them, with Ten-X offering both smokeless and black powder versions.

Although the Open-Top was originally produced as a cartridge firing revolver it still disassembles the same as the 1860 Army. That is, the barrel is held to the frame by the use of a wedge pin that goes through a slot on the barrel lug and through a second slot on the cylinder base pin. With the loosening of a screw above the wedge pin on the left side the pin can be gently tapped out and the barrel removed from the front of the frame. The cylinder then slides off the base pin and one has three pieces, mainframe, barrel and cylinder separated for easy cleaning. The wedge pin also controls the barrel cylinder gap. It is slightly tapered so the farther it is tapped into the frame the tighter the barrel/cylinder gap becomes. Push it in too far and the back of the barrel will wedge itself against the front of the cylinder. When re-assembling the Open-Top after cleaning I prefer to put a good coating of grease on the base pin as well as the two barrel pins protruding from the front of the mainframe. This makes future disassembly of the revolver much easier.

The rear sight on the Open-Top is found on the barrel in front of the cylinder and is a most tiny V-affair that mates with an upside-down V-shaped front sight. Shooters in the 19th Century obviously had good eyes! The Open-Top operates as the typical traditional single action, with the hammer brought to half cock, the loading gate on the right side opened, and the cylinder freed to rotate to be loaded or unloaded with the use of the ejector round. Using the ejector rod is a mite tricky until one learns the technique. If the cylinder is rotated until the click is heard, the method used to line up chamber and ejector rod on a Colt Single Action Army, the cartridges cannot be ejected as the end of the ejector rod hits the front of the cylinder. The trick is to start the rod on its backward travel as a cylinder is rotated and then let it enter the chamber just before the “click” occurs. It is easier to accomplish then it is to describe.

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Removal of the barrel wedge pin allows the Open-Top to be separated
into three parts for easy cleaning.

Shooting

The Open-Tops, as the original Single Action Army, have 7-1/2″ barrels, however there are other differences in addition to the two main changes asked for by the Army. The hammer spur on the Open-Top rides much higher than that found on the Single Action Army, and the Open-Top also has the 1860 Army grip frame rather than the smaller 1851 Navy shape that has always been standard through three Generations of the Model P. In addition to be .44 caliber Colt/1860 grip frame Open-Top, Cimarron also offers the Open-Top with the 1851 Navy grip frame as well as chambered in .44 Russian, .44 Special and .45 S&W. The Open-Top, as all traditional single actions must only be loaded with five rounds, and the hammer resting on an empty chamber.

Both Open-Tops were a twofold joy to shoot. After a shooting lifetime of the biggest and baddest Magnums, it is most enjoyable to actually experience the very mild recoil of the .44 Colt, as well as feeling a great connection to our historical past. These two sixguns are such a great pleasure to own and to shoot that it seemed reasonable to me to have them fitted with custom stocks, as well as ordering a double set of holsters for packing them.

For grips I called upon Buffalo Brothers. They specialize in molded, antique-looking polymer grips for all the old sixguns and their replicas. Using old-style patterns and modern coloring techniques, Buffalo Brothers offers ten different shades of historical antique coloring molded into the grip as well as carvings such as those found on single actions in the middle of the 19th-century. For these two I chose “ivory” grips with a carved Eagle symbol. These grips do require fitting and also a spacer glued in-between the left and right panels in order to fit them one-piece style. This can be a do-it-yourself project, or in my case I turn them over to my then local gunsmith, Mike Rainey at Shapels, for perfect fitting. They really set off these Open-Tops, making them extremely attractive pieces of historical sixgunning.

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Typical groups fired with the Open-Top at 50 feet.

Great Leather

Great sixguns, great grips, the next step is great leather. For this a call went out to Walt Ostin of Custom Gunleather for a double set of period correct Slim Jim-style holsters carved in the old-style floral pattern. Walt furnished these with a very slight muzzle to the rear angle when worn butt to the front, and mated them up with a floral carved belt. To keep everything lightweight, both belt and holsters were furnished unlined with five cartridge loops on each end. To further cut down on weight both billets are part of the belt proper rather than being sewn on a wide belt. Ostin finished everything in black, resulting in a most attractive rig. The black outfit and the ivory colored carved stocks provide a beautiful contrasting appearance. Walt is an exceptionally talented leather worker who can handcraft just about any type of rig anyone could possible desire. I may not be the best or fastest shooter, however I have one of the best looking sixgun and leather outfits in existence.

For me both .44 Colt Open-Tops shoot right to point of aim with both smokeless and black powder loads making them perfect for everyday use. I realize I have a very vivid imagination, an attribute of most of us who grew up listening to radio rather than watching television in our formative years. This adds to the enjoyment shooting of the Cimarron Open-Tops as every shot connects me spiritually to the past.

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The .44 Colt, right, compared with .44 Russian, .44 Special and .44 Magnum.

For more info: www.americanhandguner.com/productindex and click on the
manufacturer’s name.
Additionally: Walt Ostin Custom Gunleather 39-1260 Fisher Rd.
Cobble Hill BC Canada VOR 1L0 Phone: (250) 743-9015.

Test Firing The Cimarron Firearms 1871-72 Open-Top .44 Colt X 7-1/2″

Load MV 5 Shots/50 Feet (inches)
Black Hills 230 RNFP 653 1
Ten-X 200 RNFP 657 1-1/4
Ten-X 200 Black Powder 704 1-1/4
AA Ltd 250/4.0 gr. TiteGroup 692 1-1/2
Oregon Trail 225/4.0 gr. Red Dot 725 1
Oregon Trail 225/4.0 gr. TiteGroup 678 1-1/2
Oregon Trail 225/5.0 gr. N-100 738 1
Oregon Trail 225/5.3 gr. WW231 684 1-1/2
Oregon Trail 225/20.0 gr. Triple 7 785 2
Oregon Trail 200/21.5 gr. ClearShot 684 2

Note: Black Powder Loads By Volume Measure

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  1. Hi. I’ve been researching the Colt Peacemaker for a book I’m writing. I learned about the conversions from the original .45 caliber and am interested in this for my story. Specifically, I understand that if a Peacemaker is converted to fire .22 LR (?) that the smaller size of the ammunition enables the cylinder to hold more than the original six rounds.

    Can you tell me where I can find out the specifics on this? It is essential to my story that the number of rounds be accounted for, so I need to know how many I started with.

    Thank you,

    Steve

  2. Dale Raby says:

    Well, I don’t know why anyone would want to convert a Colt Model P to .22 LR. You’d be better off to simply buy a single action .22. Such things are available and they normally hold as many as nine or ten shots in a medium frame revolver. If you were to convert a large frame revolver like the Colt Model P to .22 LR you could probably squeeze as many as twelve chambers into it.

    Conversion of a Colt Model P would be problematical for several reasons, the first being that .22 LR is a rimfire cartridge and almost any other chambering for a Colt Model P is a centerfire. Even if you could find a .44 RF to convert, you’d still need to offset the bore. Even this is not insurmountable, though. You would need a new custom cylinder and a new barrel… or barrel liner. The bore would have to be offset to accommodate the repositioned chambers. Then there is the cost… which would be considerable and you would also be decreasing the value of Colt as originally produced by a correspondingly large amount.

    Now, as you are writing (I presume)a work of fiction, cost, feasibility, and practicality are all non-issues. So, yes, in point of fact, this kind of conversion is only impractical, not impossible.

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