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Cimarron's Richards-Mason cartridge conversions: the past comes alive again with these replicas of long forgotten Colt revolvers.

Pure and simple, Samuel Colt was a firearms genius. From the late 1830s to the early 1860s, the finest sixguns of the period bore the name Colt. And Ol' Sam carried the percussion revolver to its highest evolution.

However, Sam Colt's first excursion into firearms manufacturing with the 1836 Patterson resulted in bankruptcy, and 10 years later, when he resumed production of sixguns with the magnificent Walker, he had to hire Eli Whitney to actually make the big .44s. The Walker set Colt on the right path, and by the time of his death in 1862, he saw his finest creation, the 1860 Army Colt, selling by the thousands to equip the troops of the North during the War Between the States.

An Error In Judgement

Genius though he was, Sam Colt made some grave errors of judgment. He did not believe sixguns that fired fixed ammunition would ever replace cap and ball revolvers. When Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson brought forth their Model No. 1 .22, the first successful cartridge firing revolver, they could only do so by using the Rollin White patent that Colt had turned down.

Sam Colt simply saw no future in producing sixguns that fired fixed ammunition, and his influence lived on long after his death. Smith & Wesson one-upped Colt in 1869 by creating the first successful big bore sixgun that fired fixed ammunition -- the Model No. 3 S&W .44 American. But when the United States Government ordered 1,000 Smith & Wesson's, you can bet Colt finally started paying attention.

But Colt had a problem. The Rollin White patent, the very patent that Colt had turned down, was now controlled by Smith and Wesson, and it would not expire for a few years. Until that time passed, Colt could not produce sixguns with bored-through cylinders for use with fixed ammunition.

Colt Catches Up

To circumvent this restriction, Colt developed the Thuer Conversion, which allowed 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. Either way, it was soon replaced by a better solution -- the Richards conversion.

Charles Richards, an assistant factory superintendent at Colt, 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. Richards' description of his design stated:

"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 revolvers 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, Richards removed the rammer for seating round balls over the powder charge and replaced it with 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 shooters returned their 1860 Army Models to the factory to be converted, and others were produced as new sixguns at the factory. Among the various conversions, First Model Richards conversions can be recognized by the rear sight on the conversion ring and an ejector rod housing that stops about 1 inch in front of the face of the cylinder.

The Richards-Mason Conversion

William Mason built on Richards' conversion system with a number of subtle improvements. Mason was superintendent of the armory at Colt from the mid 1860s. He would be responsible for the improvements on the Richards Conversion, the 1871-72 Open-Top, and of course the Colt Single Action Army.

At the time the Richards-Mason coversion was placed into production, much of the old stock of percussion parts had been exhausted. New barrels were produced 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. 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.

Small Sight And Tired Eyes

One drawback to the later Richards-Mason conversion compared to the First Model Richards is the placement of the rear sight. Unlike the Richards' rear sight mounted on the conversion ring, Mason used the simple hammer notch rear sight of the earlier percussion pistols. When Mason redesigned the Richards-Mason conversion to become the 1871-72 Open-Top, he placed the rear sight upon the barrel. When the U.S. Army nudged him into coming up with something better after the Army trials of 1872, the result was the Colt Single Action with a Remington-style top strap and the hog-wallow rear sight incapable of being knocked out of alignment.

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 heroes and villains armed with Colt SAAs, regardless of the time period in which the film was set. Once in a great while, a Smith & Wesson or Remington would show up, but these instances were very rare. Now we regularly 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 who spent hard earned dollars to convert their cap and ball sixguns did not suddenly discard them when the Colt SAA 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 easily 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.

Cartridge Conversions Today

Cimarron's Colt cartridge conversions are not only being used by movie makers, they are also very popular with Cowboy Action Shooters, especially with those having a late 1860's persona. However, even if one doesn't take part in this grand sport, the cartridge conversions are sixguns that can deliver a lot of pure sixgunnin' pleasure.

Most of us will never have the opportunity to fire an original Thuer, Richards or Richards-Mason Conversion. Today, thanks to Cimarron Firearms, we can shoot two out of three in brand new sixguns. And as they say, "two outta' three ain't bad."

Editor's note: Those good folks at Cimarron aren't satisfied with "two outta' three." They are working on a Thuer conversion for the true historical sixgun afficianado, and they expect these to be available in 12 months or so.

Two years ago, I picked up Richards conversions in both .38 Special/ .38 Long Colt and .44 Colt as offered by Cimarron. The Richards-Mason conversion is now available. The .38s come on the Model 1851 platform with the standard grip frame, while the .44s sit on the larger 1860 platform with the longer 1860 grip frame. Original cartridge conversions were for black powder only, but unlike the originals, these Cimarron cartridge conversions work fine with both black powder or black powder equivalent smokeless loads.

Semi-Historic Cartridges

In order to give us a replica Colt cartridge conversion that could be shot and enjoyed, it was necessary to modernize the ammunition. The original Colt fired a .451-inch or .375-inch round ball, depending upon which sixgun was used: the 1860 Army .44 or 1851 Navy .36. Original conversions were chambered for rounds that used a heel type bullet, a bullet with a base smaller in diameter than the rest of the bullet. This resulted in bullets with the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case, much like today's .22 rimfire rounds. These original conversion cartridges were the .44 Colt and .38 Long Colt.

Modern ammunition uses bullets of uniform diameter smaller than the outside diameter of the brass case itself. The new Cimarron cartridge conversions simplify things for us, with some help from Starline brass and Black Hills Ammunition. The new 1851 Navy cartridge conversions fire standard .38 Special loads, or the shorter .38 Long Colt loads, both available from Black Hills.

The current version of the 1860 Army conversion required a "new" cartridge. This new .44 Colt is simply the .44 Special trimmed back from 1.16 inch to approximately 1.10 inch. In addition, rims are reduced in diameter. My cases from Starline have a rim diameter of .487 inch.

At The Loading Bench

For loading the .44 Colt, one can use .44 Magnum dies but it may be necessary to grind some material from the bottom of the die, as many of today's .44 dies -- designed to handle both .44 Special and .44 Magnum -- are too long for crimping the .44 Colt. The easier solution is to order .44 Russian dies from RCBS. Then you're set to load both .44 Colt and .44 Russian. The standard shell holder for the .44 Russian/.44 Special/.44 Magnum works, but the proper shell holder is the RCBS No. 2, the same size as used for the .30-30.

The original loading for the .44 Colt was 28 grains of black powder. In modern solid head brass, I normally use 25 gralns by volume measure of Goex FFg, FFFg, Cartridge, or ClearShot; Hodgdon's black powder substitute; and Pyrodex in both the P and Select grades. Smokeless powders normally used for standard sixgun loads: Unique, TiteGroup, Red Dot, and N-l00, all work fine with suitable loads in the cartridge conversions.

Not Always Perfect

The Richards conversions I tested a few years ago were the first into the country. Both had problems. The 1851 Navy Richards had a very smooth action. But it would sometimes get out of sync, and the hammer would fall to cock. If the cylinder was rotated slightly it would right itself. The 1860 Army was a simple matter of poor inspection as the walls of one chamber were filled with circular scoring.

The two latest versions I've just inspected -- one a .38 Navy and the other a .44 Colt Army Richards-Mason conversion -- exhibit excellent fit and finish with no problems whatsoever. Well, no problems except for the fact that pistoleros from that era must have either had very good eyesight. Or they relied entirely on movie style point shooting.

The rear sights on the original Richards conversions were a very small V notch. This is faithfully recreated on the Uberti-manufactured Cimarron conversions, requiring a lot of concentration for me to use these guns by sighting in the traditional way. The Richards-Mason conversions have even smaller rear sights with a V notch in the hammer. They are authentic, and not meant for eyes that spent a lifetime staring at movie and television screens. Or that now spend hundreds of hours every year typing articles while glaring at a computer screen.

Grips And Grip Frames

The original Colt 1851 Navy has the grip frame that eventually became the Colt SAA grip, with little or no change. This is the same grip shape found on Cimarron's 1851 Richards-Mason cartridge conversions. The cartridge conversions based upon the 1860 Army carry the longer and more comfortable grip originally found on that revolver. Original Colt cartridge conversions were available with either grip frame. I do believe the suppliers of Colt SAA replicas miss something by not offering the longer 1860 grip frame, which better fits large hands.

The shape of the grips supplied on these cartridge conversions are near perfect for my hands. However, all of these Cimarron sixguns, whether of the Richards or Richards-Mason type, deserve grips of better materials than those supplied. Whether on Colt SAA replicas, cap and ball, or cartridge conversion models, the grips always seem to shout: "Hey! Look at me. I'm an Italian replica!"

I realize that the way we feel about grips is purely subjective, but I like these cartridge conversions so well that I had to replace the grips, or stocks if you prefer. I sent a pair of .44 Colt Richards conversions off to Eagle for the relatively new UltraIvory stocks. This new synthetic is unlike any other offered, and difficult for one to tell whether or not it's real ivory. They look and feel like ivory, and the panels are cut from larger blocks, and then shaped and fitted, not cast. Both .44 Colt Richards conversions now wear Eagle one-piece UltraIvories.

Stocks By Linebaugh

For the Richards-Mason conversions I took a different path. I have long been a supporter of John Linebaugh's custom big bore sixguns. When I first met John he had a pair of boys with him who were not only safer than most adults when it came to handling sixguns, they could shoot those little .22s they packed. Now those boys are all grown up, and Dustin Linebaugh makes excellent sixgun stocks -- many of which are on the custom sixguns from Linebaugh Custom Sixguns.

Dustin prefers to fit grips as perfectly as possible to the grip frame, which means polishing the grips and frame together. After such work, the grip frames must be re-blued. The Richards-Mason in .44 Colt already had a steel grip frame as found on the 1860 Army, while the .38 Model 1851 cartridge conversion came with a brass grip frame. Since I wanted to carry these two sixguns as a slightly mismatched pair, the .38 was fitted with a steel back strap and trigger guard before being shipped off to Dustin.

Dustin's work in white micarta is just about perfect. The ivory-colored micarta onepiece grips set off both guns, giving them a completely different look than the "walnut" stocks of the original equipment. I recommend him highly for any grips for any sixgun.

What's A Sixgun Without A Holster?

Pickin' leather for carrying the Cimarron cartridge conversions was easy. A few years ago I had Kirkpatrick Leather build me a double Prospector rig for a pair of 1860 Armies. These fully-lined, Slim Jim-style holsters hang straight on the belt and make it easy to wear them butts to the front or to the rear.

The matching belt is also lined, with everything basket stamped and a light tan color.

Though made for the 1860 Armies, their square and open bottom leave enough room for the ejector housings of either the Richards or Richards-Mason conversions. This is excellent leather, so much so in fact that I have since added a similar double rig, black floral carved, for a pair of 7 1/2 inch stainless steel Ruger Vaqueros. Just this month I took possession of a third set of Kirkpatrick Prospectors in plain black to carry two 4 3/4 inch Colt SAAs.

I use these with cartridge slides rather than bullet loops on the belt as it makes them so much more versatile. If I don't want to carry a lot of cartridges I do not have a lot of empty loops. I can go with no cartridges, or six or 12.

A Pleasure To Use

Both Cimarron Colt cartridge conversions were test-fired with smokeless loads and black powder handloads. Even with the crude-by-modem-standards sights and my older eyes, these sixguns turned in some excellent groups with both smokeless and black powder, both factory and hand assembled. So much so that I've already sent the check to Cimarron to purchase these sixguns for my personal and pleasurable use. The accompanying table has the complete results.

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. Now, thanks to Uberti and Cimarron, a whole new crop of 21st century shooters can enjoy these important chapters of sixgun history. Sometimes progress actually works.


Cimarron Firearms

[830] 997-9090

Eagle Grips

[630] 260-0400

Dustin Linebaugh

[307] 587-7653

P.O. Box 2735

Cody WY 82414

Kirkpatrick Leather

[956] 723-6631

P.O. Box 3150

Laredo TX 78044
CFA .38 MODEL 1851 7 1/2"




 Black Hills 158 663 1 1/2"
 Homady 148 HBWC/3.2 gr. N-100 693 1 3/4"
 Homady 148 HBWC/3.0 gr. Unique 672 1 3/4"
 Lyman #358311/3.2 gr. N-100 711 1 3/4"
 Lyman #358311/3.3 gr. TiteGroup 748 2 1/4"
 Lyman #358311/3.2 gr. Red Dot 733 1 3/8"
Oregon Trail 140 FP/3.2 gr. Red Dot 787 1 5/8"
 Oregon Trail 140 FP/3.3 gr.
 TiteGroup 786 1 1/2"
 Oregon Trail 140 FP/3.2 gr. N-100 745 1 3/4"
 Oregon Trail 158 RNFP/3.2 gr.
 Red Dot 803 2"
 Oregon Trail 158 RNFP/3.3 gr.
 TiteGroup 770 2 1/2"

Load/3.8 SPECIAL


 Black Hills 158 Cowboy 712 1 1/4"
 UltraMax 125 Cowboy 715 2 1/4"
 UltraMax 158 Cowboy 724 2 1/4"
 Winchester 158 Cowboy 757 1 1/8"
CFA .44 COLT MODEL 1860 8"



 Black Hills 200 Cowboy 652 7/8"
 Black Hills 230 Cowboy 617 1 3/8"
 Tex-X 200 BPC 651 1 3/8"
 Ten-X 4-in-1 BPC 702 2 3/4"
 Ten-X 200 Cowboy 644 2"
 Oregon Trail 225/5.0 gr. N-100 708 2 1/4"
 Oregon Trail 225/5.2 gr. N100 689 1 3/8"
Oregon Trail 225/4.1 gr. TiteGroup 675 1 3/8"
 Oregon Trail 225/5.3 gr. WW231 676 1 3/8"
 Oreon Trail 225/4.3 gr. Red Dot 713 1 1/4"
 Oregon Trail 200/5.0 gr. N-100 699 2"
 Oregon Trail 200/21.5 gr.
 ClearShot FFFg 678 1 1/2"
 Oregon Trail 180/21.5 gr.
 ClearShot FFFg 658 1"
RCBS 200 Cowboy/25.0 gr. Goex CTG 715 2 1/4"



 Black Hills .44 Colt 230 689 2 1/4"
 Black Hills .44 Colt 200 700 1 1/2"
 Black Hills .44 Russian 210 717 1 1/8"
 RCBS #44-200/25.0 gr. Goex FFg 770 1 1/4"
 RCBS #44-200/25.0 gr. Goex FFFg 846 2 3/4"
 RCBS #44-200/25.0 gr. Goex CTRG 719 3 1/4"
 RCBS #44-200/25.0 gr. Pyrodex P 873 3 1/2"
RCBS #44-200/25.0 gr. Pyrodex SLCT 839 1 7/8"


RELATED ARTICLE: Photos top to bottom: 1)These Richards-Mason conversions are not only historically interesting, they are fine shootin' sixguns. 2) Cimarron's Richards-Mason cartridge conversions -- Model 1851 .38 and Model 1860 .44 Colt -- both fitted with ivory micarta grips by Dustin Linebaugh. 3) These three classic sixguns all share the same size grip frame: 1851 Navy .36, Model 1851 Richards-Mason cartridge conversion, and Colt SAA. 4) Notice the difference in the ejector rod assemblies and rear sight location on the Richards conversion (top), and Richards-Mason conversion (bottom)

Left (top): Some of the excellent powders for reloading the .44 Colt include WW 231, AA N100, Red Dot, and TiteGroup. (middle): Natural evolution from 1860 to 1873: 1860 Army (Eagle Ultralvory grips); Richards-Mason cartridge conversion (grips by Dustin Linebaugh); and Colt SAA. (bottom): Cimarron's cartridge conversions carry easily in Kirkpatrick Leather's double Prospector rig.
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Article Details
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Author:Taffin, Aka John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2002
Previous Article:Uberti's Winchester 73: this fast firing repeater speaks with an Italian accent, and is mighty popular with the cowboy crowd.
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