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The Rise Of The Full Moon…
Clips That Is!
The TK Custom Story
By Peter T. Tomaras
Once upon a time, American handgunners considered revolvers reliable, but limited in practical applications such as law enforcement and action competition. The perceived detriments were the constraint of five or six chambers, and the slow, fumble-prone process of reloading the damn things.
The hits count, not the number of shots fired. Even combat guru Clint Smith affirms the legitimacy of revolvers in defensive applications, reassuring the legions of wheelgun devotees many of whom populate ICORE, the International Confederation of Revolver Enthusiasts.
Nevertheless, autoloaders undeniably offer greater capacity and rapid reloads. Even an old bumbler like me can load a new magazine and put the next shot on target in under 1.5 seconds, and master shooters do it in half that. Fact: when ya gotta reload, semiautos win.
Well, not always. Quicker than you can say “TK Custom Full Moonclips” Thomas J. Kilhoffer shoots that “fact” full of holes. Simply stated, thanks to Kilhoffer’s cylinder conversions and full Moonclips, “revolver speed shooting” is not an oxymoron.
Need I mention Jerry Miculek? Squared off against Jerry in mano-a-mano matches like the old American Handgunner World Shootoffs, even master autogunners tremble. Miculek, a phenomenon of our lifetime, was improbably fast and deadly with sixguns before enhancements came along. Today, using full Moonclips, he can fire six rounds from his Model 625JM (in .45 ACP), reload, and deliver six more hits into the A-zone of an IPSC target at 15 feet in under three seconds. Yup (choke, swallow), you read that right.
For the non-cognoscenti, a full moonclip is circular piece of spring or stainless steel designed to hold together a full cylinder of revolver cartridges. The shooter drops in a moon-clipped cylinder of ammunition and extracts the fired cases as a unit; the moonclip remains in the revolver during firing. In serious competition, full moonclips have rendered speedloaders, once the cat’s pajamas, obsolete.
A New Business
If any one thing prompted Tom Kilhoffer to launch a business that now stretches around the globe, it was watching and competing with Jerry Miculek. Tom’s grounding in both shooting and gunsmithing is solid. After 25 years with the Illinois State Police, mostly with the Criminal Investigation Bureau, he spent 10 years with the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, picking up his Masters in Education along the way. He’s still a part-time PTI range instructor.
While a cop he shot mucho PPC (yawn) and some Bianchi Cup, quickly noting the shortcomings of factory revolvers. He began slicking up revolver actions for friends, and soon was producing full-house PPC guns like the Model 64 he built for my son: new barrel, flawless action/trigger, Aristocrat adjustable sights with removable rib, Pachmayr grips and other goodies.
When Smith & Wesson inaugurated The Masters International Championships, jaws dropped as Miculek wielded a Model 28 revolver to finish just 0.11 seconds behind Jerry Barnhart in the 1987 Speed Event. But what The Masters really boosted was the burgeoning demand for tricked-out semiautos, so Kilhoffer got into 1911 work. Learning on his own guns (“my mistakes are in the landfill”) he’s evaluated, repaired, or customized more than 10,000 firearms, earning membership in both the American Pistolsmith’s Guild and the American Handgunner Club 100.
A wheelgunner at heart, for years Kilhoffer shot Second Chance, where the preferred revolvers were Model 25-2s in .45 ACP, made by S&W for moon clips. At the S&W International Revolver Championships, where the Model 627 8-shot in .38/.357 rules, Kilhoffer won the Law Enforcement category 1994-1997 and finished Top Stock Senior 2001. He won several Illinois and Midwest IDPA revolver championships, then in 1997 he entered the AH World Shoot-Off. There he won Stock DA Revolver four years running, overall DA Revolver in 1997, Police Duty Gear category in 1998, and Senior Division in 1997, 1999, and 2000.
Moonclip Is Born
During these competitive wars, Kilhoffer saw an unexploited market niche. Smith & Wesson had produced a few competition revolvers with cylinders recessed for moon clips, but was focusing on other things. Kilhoffer grabbed the ball and ran with it. Given his ‘smithing skills, adapting cylinders was a natural progression, and his camaraderie with leading wheelgunners presented a ready market.
Today, Tom’s gun work is confined almost entirely to the machining of S&W revolver cylinders to accept the full moonclips he sells. Tom chooses to use the single capitalized word — “Moonclip.” Do any Web search for Moonclips and TK Custom comes up first. He’s the market leader, with exclusive rights to sell Moonclips produced by three manufacturers.
Early on, people understood that Moonclips keep cartridges together for loading and unloading, but didn’t necessarily grasp the concept of cylinder conversion. Simply put, if your cylinder isn’t machined to accept them, Moonclips don’t work. At first, Tom focused on S&W Models 686 and 629. Then a glowing compliment from a veteran machinist encouraged him to take on all types and sizes of S&W cylinders — the J, K, L and N frames, and lately the big X-frames, the 5-shot .460s and .500s.
The booster rocket for Tom’s rising sales was the addition to his Web site of a four-minute video of the machining of a Model 686 cylinder. Watching that video tells you all you need to know. Viewings of it on YouTube are approaching 7,000.
For anyone interested in adapting revolvers for Moonclips, here’s the process. The afternoon mail brings a customer’s cylinder assembly and Tom puts it in a sonic cooker to clean out all the grunge so it’s ready to machine the next morning. He uses a Jet Turret Milling Machine, a regular lathe won’t work. The cylinder goes into a collet (he machines collets for individual cylinder sizes), which he centers on a 10″ rotary table.
He attaches a template with measurements for the particular type and caliber cylinder to the milling machine just under the electronic readouts. For a 686 x 6 cylinder, for example, the Y-axis (in and out) remains at zero, as it’s the centerline of the cylinder. The Z-axis (called the quill, which moves up and down) is set to a depth of .0275″. Using a tin‑coated carbide end mill (1/4″ for most calibers), he machines the cylinder by hand manipulation of the rotary table and the X-axis (side to side). He cuts cartridge seat #1, rotates the table 60 degrees, then cartridge seat #2.
When all six seats are machined, he next cuts the ratchet outside diameter to .516″. The last cut is the cylinder OD to 1.277″ for the Moonclip fit. The final two steps are deburring and burnishing of the cylinder and ratchet by hand.
The loaded Moonclip drops into the cylinder recess like a marble down a test tube—kerplunk. The thickness of his Moonclips is .022″ or .025″ for most calibers, the latter for Models 627 x 8 and 686 x 8; .035″ for .38 Super and 9mm; and .040″ for .45 ACP and .500 S&W.
Cartridges still seat on top of the cylinder as designed by S&W; the Moonclips simply float in the cylinder. You can verify that your ammo loads properly without need of a safe area by dropping loaded clips into the cylinder, separate from the gun. One caveat: Starline brass works best in Tom’s Moonclips, then Federal and Remington. Winchester brass does not work, because of its clearance-cut groove.
Tom has Moonclips designed and manufactured to his specifications, and retains intellectual ownership of all clips. Most Moonclips are of stamped carbon steel, and Tom purchases 500-1,000 at a time for various handgun brands and calibers. The stainless steel clips produced by Californian Dave Hearth are match quality, manufactured to tight specifications on a wire Electrode Discharge Machine (EDM).
Factory guns do not come machined for full Moonclips, so should you want to convert your revolver, send Tom only the cylinder (not the gun). For tyros who don’t know how to get the cylinder out of the gun, ask Tom. The cost is just $100 to machine most cylinders, $150 for the X-frame and previously recessed cylinders.
Speaking of the X-frame, Tom takes the very popular .460 S&W Magnum revolver to a new level of versatility by machining the cylinder so it can fire four different calibers — .460 S&W, .454 Casull, .45 Colt and .45 ACP — using three different full Moonclips. For this conversion he offers a package: machining the cylinder, three 5-packs of full Moonclips, a MoonSetter tool to easily load all four calibers, and a Moonclip Stripper tool that safely removes cartridges without damage — all for $300.
The MoonSetter is a specially-designed pliers that easily snaps cartridges into tight-fitting Moonclips, providing leverage for effortless, one-hand loading. The tool eliminates abused fingers, bent clips and wasted time. Interchangeable mandrels adapt the tool to fit a variety of full Moonclips
The other package Tom offers is conversion of the Taurus Judge to shoot .45 ACP in addition to .45 Colt and .410 shotshells. He machines the cylinder for a special .031″, .45 ACP Moonclip. The $225 package includes machining, two clips each for .45 Colt and .45 ACP, and MoonSetter and Stripper tools. The shotshells do not require Moonclips.
TK Custom also markets a nifty, IDPA-approved, stainless Moonclip Holder that attaches the loaded clip onto your belt — the equivalent of the speedloader pouch. Noteworthy: so dramatically have full Moonclips revolutionized action revolver competition that IDPA requires Moonclip users to load to a 165 power factor (vs. 125 for everybody else), and IRC has created a new category in 2009 just for moonclippers.
TK Custom Moonclip Flatness Checkers are aluminum cylinders manufactured to the dimensions of any S&W revolver cylinder so that shooters can safely check loaded clips anywhere.
In limited miscellaneous work, Tom converts cylinders from .38 special to 9mm (cheaper ammo) by reaming the chambers and then machining for full Moonclips. He sells Moonclips for Rugers and the 5-shot Taurus, but does not machine those cylinders. Other pistolsmiths do machine non-S&W cylinders, and Tom carries links to them on his Web site.
He also markets .22 LR chamber conversion inserts for .45 Colt and .45 Auto Rim (made in Minnesota by Mark Thimsen) that enable shooters to practice draws, target acquisition, trigger control, etc. with inexpensive ammo. The inserts are rifled, but don’t expect target accuracy.
Tom Kilhoffer’s credo is to provide the highest quality products, quick shipping, and unprecedented customer service. He promises seven‑day turnaround on machined cylinders, but typically ships within three. He ships internationally to countries that allow entry of gun parts. On these shipments he declares “metal clips” or “machined cylinder”—not “revolver parts.” The generic nomenclature also minimizes customs fees.
Even as a one-man shop, Tom Kilhoffer gives back. Since 2001 he has sponsored a stage at IRC, and for three years he sponsored the two high ladies, Lisa Farrell (iron sights) and Australia’s Beate Sexton (open). Both shoot the S&W 627 .38/.357 using Tom’s full Moonclips. His continuing practice of donating a Model 627 8-shot, which one range officer will win in a blind drawing, helps IRC match directors attract the ROs they need.