THE COLT SOLUTION--THE .44 COLT CARTRIDGE CONVERSIONS

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            How did we ever survive without cell phones? Some folks seem to have them permanently attached to their ear and we have the joy of listening in on their half of every conversation no matter where we happen to be. Yes, I do have the cell phone, however it is never turned on but rather stays in my Chevy 4X4 Silverado. It is there simply because I spend so much time alone while testing firearms in the desert and my wife figured it would be a good idea to have one. I do not carry it on my person except when shooting and then it is in my shirt pocket. I figure if I ever need it I had better be able to reach it quickly.

            That cell phone also goes along on hunting trips so I can call back home and hear Diamond Dot say we don't have room for another head. When I shot my cow buffalo outside of Dodge City Kansas in a snowstorm blowing horizontally I was able to climb up to the highest spot in Kansas, about 10 feet above the buffalo, and call home. She was most happy to hear this was an animal for meat and for a genuine buffalo robe and no wall space needed. One thousand miles away from home in Kansas it would work but  not 6,000 feet up in Oregon a few hundred miles away when I was returning from a hog hunt. I had to travel all the way across the high desert of Oregon before I hit the so-called service area allowing me to reach home. I guess I have to do all my shooting in a service area just in case I ever really do need to call for assistance.

            When I finally made contact I heard the words "Jesse James” and “old gun” via the cell phone and once again I realized what a magnet Dot is for attracting interesting old firearms and this one really came quite strangely. Dot's cousin Don is one of my all-time heroes. He never fought in a war, never hit a game winning homerun or scored a touchdown; he simply did what he had to do for 25 years. Day in and day out he cared for an invalid wife with never a complaint; and when his wife was finally placed in a nursing home he went to see her every day, seven days a week, to read to her or do anything he could for her. His was a life of total dedication and sacrifice.

When his wife died he was released to be able to do some traveling. He is an old car buff with contacts all over the country and now he was free to spend a month visiting many folks ending up at a car show in Tulsa Oklahoma. Oklahoma is not very close to Idaho but Don decided to come and see us and then hit Reno for another car show before heading back to Ohio. Now it gets weird. While he was talking to one of his former long distance acquaintances in Oklahoma face to face somehow the subject of firearms and Dot and I came up; and this older gentleman said he had a revolver that had belonged to Jesse James. Yes, I know what you are thinking! Of course everyone knows there are hundreds of guns around the country once belonging to Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock, and on and on and on.

            Don suggested sending the old sixgun up to us to be examined and evaluated. When I finally reached Diamond Dot by cell phone from Oregon both Don and the "Jesse James Sixgun” had already arrived. I have to give Dot a lot of credit as she went right to the Standard Catalog of Firearms to identify it and help establish a value and she also took it over to Buckhorn Gun Shop as the proprietor there specializes in old Colts. This particular Colt turned out to be an example of one I had never seen, except for pictures, an original 1860 Army Richards Conversion to .44 Colt.

            All serial numbers match, the action is solid, the rifling is exceptionally strong, and the finish had been gone for probably at least a century and replaced in several spots by pitting. The stocks are also quite solid and tight fitting with all four corners just slightly chipped off. It is obviously a sixgun seeing much use although still cared for in the process. Much of the pitting could have come from its storage in what appears to be a holster made from the heavy leather of an old boot top. This piece of leather may be as old as the sixgun itself. The fellow who owned this Richards Conversion had it in his possession for over 20 years. When he was younger he had spent considerable time helping an older lady in his neighborhood. She lived to her mid-eighties and gave the .44 Colt to him before she died saying she had received the Colt from “an old black gentleman” when she was in her twenties. Since she had four sons and no idea how to split up this old antique .44 four ways it was given to the young fellow who had helped her so much. She told him the black gentleman said he had been given the .44 Colt by Jesse James. If we put all the numbers together the timeframe is right. However, the numbers are all we have. There is no documentation, no letters, no affidavits, no personal testimony. All we have is word-of-mouth handed down through three generations.

            When Sam Colt died in 1862 he was a millionaire several times over, lived in a mansion, and had 1500 employees in his factory. He made one major mistake as far as the future of firearms was concerned. Before he died he set the course for the Colt Company of ignoring the newfangled brass cartridges such as the .22 of Smith & Wesson’s tip-up, seven-shot, single action revolver and the .44 of B. Tyler Henry’s 1860 levergun, and instead continued producing percussion firearms. As a result of the Civil War Colt had a large contract for 1860 Army revolvers placing the company on sound financial footing. Sam knew sixgunners would always prefer to load their own ammunition using powder, ball, and cap and there was no future for fixed ammunition. However, as we saw in Chapter 3, Smith & Wesson was pointed to the future and in late 1869 brought forth the first big bore cartridge firing sixgun, the Model #3 .44 S&W American, a top-break revolver with automatic ejection of fired cartridges when opened. The future had arrived while Colt was stuck in the past. The United States Army ordered .44 Smith & Wessons and now Colt was ready to pay attention and made a scramble to come up with a revolver accepting brass cartridges at the rear of the cylinder. However, they had a problem. The Rollin White patent, the patent Colt had turned down, was now controlled by Smith and Wesson. However it would run out shortly; but what to do in the meantime?

            To get around this restriction, Colt came up with the Thuer Conversion to allow the cylinder of a converted 1860 Army to be loaded from the front with a tapered cartridge. This conversion did not last very long, although some sources say as many as 5,000 were made, because it was soon replaced by a better solution, the Richards Conversion. 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. 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. 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 1860s and 1870s 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.

Colt Cartridge Conversions were based on the 1860 Colt Army which used a .451" round ball. When the switch was made to a cartridge firing system the 1860 Army .44 was chambered for the .44 Colt, a round using a heel type bullet, and as we saw in Chapter 3 this was a bullet whose base was smaller in diameter than the rest of the bullet, resulting in a bullet that was the same diameter as the outside of the case much like today's .22 rimfire rounds. The original loading for the .44 Colt was 21 grains of black powder with a thick lube wad between a conical bullet and powder. Bullets weighed approximately 208 grains and muzzle velocity was round 750 fps. The U.S. Army adopted the .44 Colt as one of its official cartridges for two years. When Colt and Smith & Wesson introduced their cartridge firing sixguns in the early 1870s, thousands of perfectly good cap and ball sixguns were still in service. The conversions performed on these revolvers kept many of them shooting right through the turn of the 20th century.

Colt was not quite ready to make the leap to the Single Action Army. This would require one more bridge. We have gone from the Walker to the Dragoon to the 1860 Army all using powder, .44 ball, and cap; then through the Richards and Richards-Mason Cartridge Conversions chambered in .44 Colt. Now it was time for the last transitional sixgun, the 1871-72 Open-Top. The Cartridge Conversions were performed on existing 1860 Army revolvers in the field as well as being assembled from parts at the Colt   factory, however the 1871-72 Open-Top would be quite different.

Charles Richards, assistant factory superintendent at Colt, held the patents that allowed the Richards Conversion on 1860 Army Models; and the factory superintendent, William Mason, had provided the improvements leading to the Richards-Mason Cartridge Conversion and then designed the 1871-72 Open-Top. The Open-Top, so named because it did not have a top strap as found on later Colts, was not a conversion but a brand-new revolver, in fact Colt's first cartridge firing big bore sixgun. The parts in the Open-Top did not interchange with parts in the Cartridge Conversions.

Although the Cartridge Conversions used the .44 Colt, Mason reverted back to the .44 Rimfire for use in the Open-Top. The reason for the Open-Top was to have a revolver to submit to the 1871-72 Army trials to select a new revolver. The Open-Top does look much like the Cartridge Conversions as it is built on an open top main frame rather than a solid frame, however there is no provision for the loading lever found on cap and ball revolvers. The Open-Top was submitted to the Army along with other maker’s revolvers, however none of those submitted passed muster. Now comes one of those great moments in firearms history. Mason was sent back to the drawing board to re-design the Open-Top with a solid frame. The result was the legendary Colt Single Action Army.

There is some confusion about the first Single Action Army. Several sources say it was chambered in .44 but they do not agree on which 44. It may have been the .44 American which was already a military cartridge; it may have been the .44 Henry also known as the .44 Rimfire which was used in the 1860 Henry and 1866 Winchester leverguns; and other say it might have even have been the .44 Russian. Whenever it was, the United States Army wanted a .45 and the Cavalry Model Single Action Army was born.

Currently replicas are available or have been in the Richards Conversion, Richards-Mason Conversion, and the 1871-72 Open-Top versions all chambered in a modernized version of the .44 Colt. We will discuss loading the .44 Colt both original and modern in the chapter on Reloading The Frontier .44s. The Jesse James Richards Conversion? Diamond Dot did buy it and it is in shooting condition. It is definitely better three minute of man and we will talk about it also in the frontier cartridge reloading chapter. 

4-1 & 4-2) Nearly 150 years separates the original Colt Richards Conversion, top,

from the Uberti replica, bottom.

 

4-3) An original 1860 Richards Conversion shown with replicas of the three

Colt .44s of the early 1870s, the Richards Conversion, the Richards-Mason Conversion,

and the 1871-72 Open-Top.

 

4-4) Two old battle scarred .44 Colts, the Richards Conversion and an

1879 Frontier Six- Shooter .44 WCF. Both are still in good shooting condition.

 

4-5 & 4-6) Left and right side views of an original Richards Conversion

still in excellent shooting condition.

 

4-7) Note the conversion ring at the back to the cylinder and the short

ejector rod common to the 1860 Richards Conversion.

 

4-8) This homemade holster made from a piece of boot leather may be

as old as the 1860 Army Richards Conversion.

 

4-9) Smith & Wesson’s three .44 Cartridges, the Russian, the Special,

and the Magnum compared to the .44 Colt.

 

4-10) Rapine offers a mold for the .44 hollow base bullet which is necessary

to successfully load the .44 Colt for use in original Conversions.

 

4-11) Left and right side views of another original Richards Conversion.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s Old Town Station Ltd.

 

Chapter 3         Chapter 5