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Big gun and little gun: the latest in cowboy cartridge-conversion cylinders run the gamut from Walkers to Baby Dragoons.

Think of it as Dirty Harry circa 1872. What other image could a .44-caliber Walker converted to fire .45 Long Colt possibly conjure up? The Walker was the biggest American handgun of the early 1800s, and when converted to fire metallic cartridges, as some no doubt were in the 1870s, it would have been, as Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan once said, "the most powerful handgun in the world."

Power is what the Walker was all about in 1846 when Captain Samuel Walker and Sam Colt designed a new sidearm for the U.S. Mounted Riflemen to Carry battle against Mexico. Up to this point the only revolver in use was the .36-caliber Paterson, a gun that in battle lacked both ease of use and, above all, firepower.

As the first Colt revolver, the Paterson had broken new ground in 1836, but it had also broken Sam Colt. By 1842 his first manufacturing enterprise in Paterson, New Jersey, was out of business. On a visit to New York in 1846, Capt. Walker sought out Colt and convinced him to create the largest percussion revolver then known. He named the new model after Walker, who was killed in the war with Mexico in 1847.

The new .44-caliber revolver was massive, weighing four pounds, nine ounces empty and measuring more than 15 inches in length with a 9-inch, half-octagonal, half-round barrel. Backing a .454 lead ball with up to 60 grains of black powder made the Walker the most powerful revolver of its day. The U.S. government purchased 1,000 from Colt, divided between and individually marked for the five Mounted Riflemen or Dragoon Companies--A, B, C, D and E Nearly all original examples that survive are stamped on the frame and cylinder with the Company and number, such as A Company No. 1.

Colt also built an additional 100 guns for civilian sales and presentation. All 1,100 were assembled in 1847 at the armory of Eli Whitney Jr. in Whitneyville, Connecticut. The success of the Walker established Sam Colt as America's premier armsmaker, and he quickly followed the big .44 with the lighter-weight 1st Model Dragoon and small .31-caliber Baby Dragoon; more on this later.


The history of the gun in America is rich with legendary models. Few, however, have captured the imagination of collectors and firearms enthusiasts like the Walker, still one of the most popular Colts ever built. Though Walkers have appeared in many Western films over the decades, the most memorable is in the TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove," where Robert Duvall's character, retired Texas Ranger Augustus McCrea, was still carrying his old 1847 Walker well into the 1870s. While an original 1847 costs more today than a new imported luxury car, with the best examples worth as much as the house you'd park it in front of, 2nd and 3rd Generation Colt Walkers are affordable, and the Italian reproductions are even more so, costing only a few hundred dollars. Owning an example of Colt history, even one built in Italy, is within the means of any black-powder enthusiast. Converting it to fire metallic cartridges, however, is another story.

In the 1870s, when metallic cartridge conversions were swiftly overtaking loose-powder revolvers in sales, many Civil War-era and earlier Colt and Remington revolvers were converted in the field by gunsmiths. It is known that Dragoons were converted to cartridge guns, and at least one Paterson, so it is not unlikely that a Walker or two also had their frames reworked and fitted with a breechring and bored-through cartridge cylinder.

That's what R.L. Millington of ArmSport LLC in Eastlake, Colorado, did for the author on a 3rd Generation Colt Walker. The design is essentially the same as the popular 1872 patented Richards-Mason conversion, just scaled up to the heftier dimensions of the big Colt. This was the same approach used by Colt's and Western gunsmiths to convert a handful of the big .44-caliber 1st, 2nd and 3rd Model Dragoons in the 1870s.

While the Dragoons were still big guns, in the case of a Walker conversion, the words "hand cannon" seem more appropriate. Loaded with six 200-grain cartridges, the Walker conversion weighs in at four pounds, 13 ounces. After a day on the range with that hogleg strapped around your middle, you knew you were heeled, and so did anyone within eyeshot.

What's it like to pick up a revolver weighing nearly five pounds and let loose with all six chambers? Just like Clint Eastwood drawing that 8 3/8-inch S&W Model 29 from his shoulder holster, you pretty much have everyone's undivided attention. The example Millington built is about as close to an original frontier conversion as possible.

Not everyone wants to put a couple of grand into a custom-built, ivory-stocked Walker conversion, but fortunately, the folks at Taylor's & Co. and R&D have a solution that comes close to being the best of both worlds--a .45 Colt drop-in conversion cylinder just for the Walker.

Recently introduced by Taylor's, the big .45 Colt cylinder was designed by Kenny Howell, best known for his Remington drop-in conversion cylinders and long-time role as Tom Selleck's gunmaker for such films as Last Stand at Saber River, Crossfire Trail and Monty Walsh. The Howell design uses a two-piece cylinder similar to the Remington drop-in, with a cylinder cap containing six firing pins, one for each chamber. We make note of this distinction because there is another approach in common use today, the Kirst system, which uses a single floating firing pin fitted to a breechring that locks into the frame, but Kirst does not make a Walker cylinder. He does have them for the Colt 1851 and 1861 Navy, however.

Regardless of which design one favors, neither is as convenient to change out in a Colt as it is in a Remington. To reload a Walker, you have to remove the barrel from the frame by pushing out the wedge, then slide off the barrel, remove the cylinder from the arbor, dump the empty casings, reload the cylinder, replace the cylinder cap, and reassemble the gun. It's not quick and not always easy because a wedge can be hard to push through and the barrel hard to slide free. With practice and a few handy tools like a leather mallet to loosen and reset the wedge and a small brass or nylon drift (if the wedge really resists), you can get a Colt apart in less than a minute. Our test gun is a well-seasoned Uberti that has been hand fitted, so the wedge can be pressed out with firm thumb pressure. The barrel slides smoothly off the cylinder arbor, and a reload takes less than a minute.

Of course, in that same time you could have already shot and reloaded a Remington, which brings to mind another Eastwood classic, Pale Rider, where he changes cartridge cylinders in a converted Remington Army right in the middle of a gunfight. Still, there's something irresistible about shooting a Walker. The sharp report of that .45 Colt round roaring out the end of a 9-inch barrel is just as impressive as a 60-grain load of black powder behind a lead ball.

What we found during our test is that the inherent accuracy of the Walker is not compromised by the conversion, and, in fact, our Uberti printed very impressive five-round groups at 25 and 50 feet dispensing Ten-X .45 Colt 200-grain RNFP loads. The Walker is a handful, all right, but that weight also tames recoil, making this a sure shot with the R&D Taylor's conversion cylinder. The Uberti Walker retails for around $300, the R&D conversion cylinder for $250. For just over $500 you've got a combination black-powder and cartridge gun that, if nothing else, will shoot straight and turn heads at the range.

The big guns have been getting their due for some time when it comes to contemporary cartridge conversions, but pocket pistols have long been overlooked--until now. Both Taylor's R&D and Kirst have new pocket-pistol conversions, Taylor's for the .31-caliber Colt Baby Dragoon and Kirst for the ever-popular Remington pocket model, which is now available in a steel-flame version, essential for a cartridge conversion.

For SASS pocket-pistol side matches, the Taylor's R&D drop-in has the most potential because it is a .32 S&W six-shot cylinder. As a percussion pistol, the Baby Dragoon is a five-shooter, so the conversion adds a sixth chamber. In all other respects the operating protocol is the same as for the Walker, and the Baby Dragoon makes one terrific pocket conversion, albeit one best suited for close-range work. At 25 feet the conversion cylinder fitted to the Uberti Baby Dragoon managed acceptable groups time and again right out of the box. With a bit of fine-tuning this little gem is going to be popular.

The Kirst conversion for the Remington pocket pistol is limited to five shots but is much faster due to the design of the Kirst system and the relative ease in changing out a cylinder. Just like the full-size Kirst Remington Army converter, the pocket model is a two-piece design with a breechring that fits over the cylinder and, in-unit, drops easily into the frame with the flat base of the breechring locking it into place. Slide the cylinder arbor home, raise and lock the loading lever, and you're ready to shoot. Unlike the R&D design where the cylinder and cap rotate as one, with the Kirst only the cylinder rotates. Less mass in motion, less possibility for a jam--two schools of thought both based on 19th century designs refined for the 21st century Cowboy Action shooter.

The Kirst Remington does have a drawback, however, or should we say, the Remington pocket pistol. Unlike the Army and Navy models manufactured by Uberti and Pietta, which have fairly consistent tolerances, the steel-frame Pietta pocket models seem to vary from gun to gun, and each has to be fitted for the Kirst cylinder. Walt Kirst will do this for a slight additional charge. Once the gun and cylinder are matched, the action performs flawlessly, although with factory .32 saw loads the Remington keyholes just about every shot. And the spur hammer is more than a little twitchy. Although we really like the Kirst design for the big Remingtons, our personal preference for a .32 saw pocket pistol is the Baby Dragoon fitted with the R&D cylinder.

The Baby Dragoon is going to be very popular. As for the Walker conversion, it probably wouldn't be the most competitive smokewagon to bring to a match, but it sure would be the most talked-about. And since this is SASS, you'd never have to ask yourself the question that plagued Harry Callahan: "Did I fire five, or did I fire six?"


ArmSport (Walker Colt Conversion) Dept. HG P. O. Box 254 Eastlake, CO 80614 (303) 451-7212

Jim Barnard (Trailrider products/ custom holsters) Dept. HG P. O. Box 2284 Littleton, CO 80161 (303) 791-6068

Dan Chesiak (hand-carved ivory grips) Dept. HG 52 Kingswood Dr. Naugatuck, CT (203) 723-8600

Kirst Konverters Dept, HG 312 Main St. McGregor, IA 52157 (563) 873-2387

Taylor's & Co. (R&D conversion cylinders) Dept. HG 304 Lenoir Dr Winchester, VA 22603 (540l 722-2017
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Author:Adler, Dennis
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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