Cimarron’s Concealed Carry Cartridge Conversions

25

These 51/2" 1858 Remington percussion pistols in .44 and .36 are easily
changed into cartridge conversions using conversion cylinders from Taylor’s & Co.

In 1856 S&W entered into an agreement with Rollin White who held the patent on revolvers with bored-through cylinders, and then in 1857, some sources say August 1858, using this patent, S&W introduced the Model #1 as the first cartridge firing revolver. This little seven-shot, tip-up, single-action revolver was chambered in what we now know as the .22 Short. In the mid-1860s the Model #11/2 was offered in .32 Rimfire. Then in late 1869-early 1870 S&W hit the sixgunnin’ jackpot with the Model Three American chambered in both the centerfire .44 S&W American and the .44 Henry Rimfire. Sam Colt could have had the Rollin White patent but felt powder, cap and ball would always be preferred.

The Path To The Peacmaker-51/2" versions all: Left: 1860 Army
Second To Left: Richards Conversion a
Middle: Richards-Mason Conversion
Second To Right: 1871-72 Open-Top
Right: Single Action Army

Conversion Workarounds

Due to the White patent no one else except S&W would be allowed to produce cartridge-firing revolvers until 1869. In 1868 S&W entered an agreement with Remington, allowing them to convert their percussion pistols to cartridge firing revolvers using a bored through cylinder. Sam Colt was now gone, and the Colt company was left out in the cold.

Once the patent ran out, Colt began offering cartridge conversions on their basic 1860 Army Model. First came the Richards Conversion in July 1871, followed by the Richards-Mason Conversion in 1872. The latter is easy to distinguish from the former as it has a full-length ejector rod housing running all the way back to the front of the cylinder. Both Colt cartridge conversions were built on the cap and ball 1860 Army.
The third entry of Colt was not a conversion but a new revolver. This was the 1871-72 Open Top. This completely new production began in 1872. The standard barrel lengths for the two cartridge conversions were the same for the 1860 Army, namely 8″ while the 1871-72 had a slightly shorter 71/2″ barrel.

Were shorter barrels offered? The definitive work on cartridge conversions is A Study of Colt Conversions and Other Percussion Revolvers by R. Bruce McDowell, and on page 283 is shown a 51/2″ 1871-72 Open Top Revolver with well-worn ivory stocks. He says of this picture: “Some Model 1871-1872 Open Top .44s have short barrels such as that pictured. The gun is serial number 4138, has a 53/8″ barrel and Army-size ivory grips with steel grip straps. Most of these revolvers were shipped from the factory with a 71/2″ barrel, and if shortened, were done so by owners or gunsmiths after they left the factory. Shorter barrels were very popular with lawmen, gunfighters, railroad detectives and others needing to clear leather in a hurry.” This revolver mentioned by McDowell is also interesting in that it is not chambered in .44 Colt but has been converted to .44-40. Someone was very serious about a Perfect Packin’ Pistol!

Both of these Richards Mason Conversions are chambered in .38 Long Colt/.38 Special.

Cimarron Conversions

Original short-barreled cartridge conversions may be hard to find, however thanks to Cimarron Firearms, both the Richards and Richards-Mason Conversions are offered in replica form as well as the 1871-72 Open-Top all with 51/2″ barrels. Both 1851 and 1860 versions, so named because of their grip frame, are offered. The former has the grip frame identical to the Single Action Army, while the latter is the same as found on the 1860 Army cap and ball revolver.

In addition to .44 Russian/.44 Colt/.44 Special and .38 Long Colt/.38 Special in several variations, Cimarron also offers both a .45 Colt and a .45 Schofield chambered version. A check of their current catalog shows the 51/2″ Richards is available in both .38 Special, which also handles .38 Long Colt and a second version which chambers .44 Special, .44 Colt and .44 Russian.

The first cartridge conversions and the Open-Top that I encountered several years ago were chambered for the .44 Colt. This cartridge has a rim smaller in diameter than that found on the Special and Russian. Those cylinders were too small to allow the two latter cartridges to chamber. So, if one wants to shoot all three .44 cartridges, it is necessary to make sure it is a later model with the slightly larger cylinder to accept the rims of the Russian and Special.

Looking at the specifications of 51/2″ Richards-Mason replicas we find both versions of the .44 model with one handling .44 Colt and .44 Russian and another accepting all three. The .44 Special is the longest of the three cartridges and any chambered for this .44 will handle the other two also. It is available as well in .38 Special, .45 Colt and a version that is dedicated for .45 Schofield/.45 S&W only.

This brings us to the 1871-72 Open-Top which in the 51/2″ barrel length version can be had in .38 Special, .44 Colt/.44 Russian, and .45 Colt. The interesting thing is this model is also available with a 43/4″ barrel.

All three versions load through a loading gate on the right side and have an ejector rod for removing spent cases just as found on the shortly to appear Single Action Army — the first big Colt to have a top strap. Unlike the SAA, which not only has a top strap, and a permanently attached barrel, the barrel assembly of the cartridge conversions and Open-Top are mated to the frame with a wedge pin just as the 1860 Army percussion pistol.

Chamberings can be confusing so it is a good idea to call Cimarron and see exactly what is available and whether the .44 version will handle all three cartridges and whether .45s will accept both the .45 Colt and .45 S&W/Schofield. All these Cimarron replicas are of excellent quality, nicely fitted and finished and, thanks to Mike Harvey’s diligence, exceptionally authentic.

A pair of Richards-Mason Conversions chambered in .38 and .44 and a Richards .44.

Remington Conversions

Remington percussion pistols can also be made easily into cartridge conversions by simply adding conversion cylinders. I had Milt Morrison of Qualite Pistol and Revolver start with a pair of 1858 Remingtons, one in .44 and the other a .36 cap and ball, and shorten the barrels to 51/2″. Once this was finished, it was only necessary to add conversion cylinders. For the former one has two choices as I have excellent quality Kirst Konverter cartridge conversion cylinders in both .45 Colt and .45 ACP while with the latter Remington mentioned the same cylinder will work with both .38 Special and .38 Long Colt. If one is a reloader, very easy shooting loads for practice can be made up using .38 Short Colt brass.

This Richards Conversion, top, and the Richards-Mason Conversion
are both chambered in .38 Long Colt/.38 Special.

Conversion Notes: .38

There is something that needs to be noted about .38 Conversions. There is no problem with the Richards, Richards-Mason, or 1871-72 Open-Top. However, if a cartridge cylinder is added to a Remington or Colt .36 there will be a problem when trying to fire standard loads. Both have 0.375″ barrels instead of the normal .38 barrel of 0.357″. The original .38 Colt loads used a heeled bullet, which was smaller at the base to fit into the brass case while the remainder of the bullet was the same diameter as the brass to mate up with a barrel. To obtain any accuracy with conventional bullets, one needs soft cast hollow base bullets that will expand to fit the rifling of the larger barrels. Hollow base wadcutters will work or Buffalo Arms offers soft cast bullets with hollow bases.

Ruger’s Old Army is converted into a .45 Colt with the use of R&D conversion cylinders.

The 51/2" Ruger Old Army performs exceptionally well as a .45 Colt.

Ruger Conversions

Before production ceased on the Ruger Old Army in 2009, they not only offered the original long-barreled version with both adjustable and fixed sights, they also offered a 51/2″ stainless steel fix-sighted, easier-to-pack and handle example. These are percussion revolvers, and excellent ones at that, however they can easily be changed into cartridge firing sixguns chambered in .45 Colt.

To use these conversion cylinders, one removes the original cylinder, and uses the same base pin that is part of the Old Army loading lever with the new cylinder. For use with cartridge firing cylinders, Belt Mountain offers a replacement base pin that’s easily removable and does away with the original loading lever assembly making it much easier to remove the cylinder for loading cartridges. Belt Mountain offers a spring-loaded latch to secure the base pin thus making it unnecessary to use the screw through the side of the frame.

Options

I have several conversion cylinders for the 1858 Remington and 1851 and 1860 Army from both Walt Kirst and Taylor’s & Co. R&D conversion cylinders. Most of these conversion cylinders come with a back plate with six firing pins, safety notches between chambers, and a locating pin in the back of the cylinder that mates with a corresponding hole in the conversion ring/back plate.

To load, the back plate is removed, place cartridges in the cylinder, replace the back plate, and put the cylinder in the Old Army frame, returning the base pin. To unload, remove the cylinder, take off the back plate, and remove the cartridges. If they do not fall out by gravity, use a rod or a wooden dowel to tap them out from the front of cylinder. Kirst Konverter cylinders are available for a long list of replicas in addition to the Ruger Old Army with some kits available with a loading gate. There are also conversion kits available to change some replica percussion pistols to .22 sixguns.

The workmanship on both the R&D and Kirst cylinders is excellent. A pair of Ruger Old Army 51/2 percussion pistols were fitted with R&D cylinders several decades ago. Both were near perfect fits in the Old Army frames and in two older Old Armies. With most .45 Colt loads, and the conversion cylinders in place, both revolvers shoot just slightly below point of aim at 20 yards.

This Richards Conversion accepts both .44 Russian and .44 Colt loads.

Ammo Flexibility

When the cartridge era entered in the early 1870s, many sixgunners had their revolvers converted to cartridge firing by adding a new cylinder. The smart ones held onto their old cylinders, just in case they found themselves without ammunition.

Whether for plinkin’ or packin’, cartridge conversions offer a lot of versatility. With the versions I have I can choose to shoot .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt, .38 Special, .44 Colt, .44 Russian, .44 Special, .45 Schofield,.45 Colt, and even .45 ACP. That does not leave many bases uncovered.

It has been over 150 years since the first cartridge conversions appeared. They only held center stage at Colt from 1871 to 1873 when the Single Action Army appeared. For concealed carry they may not be anywhere near the upper part of the list of practical options, however, they will still certainly work and especially for traveling off the beaten path be it in sagebrush, foothills, forests, or mountains they will still work just fine while giving us a grand connection to the past.

For more info: Cimarron-Firearms.com, KirstKonverter.com, TaylorsFirearms.com, QualityGunsmithing.com, BeltMountain.com

Subscribe To American Handgunner

Purchase A PDF Download Of The American Handgunner Nov/Dec 2021 Issue Now!