Salvage it or scrap it? A gun that some professionals would relegate to the parts bin can provide a rewarding challenge to the amateur 'smith.
The gun had been languishing on one of the online auction sites for several weeks with no takers and I had browsed past it several times before I got past the photograph and read what the seller had to say about it. The pictures showed a disaster of an old Colt, with virtually no finish left and a pitted surface that looked like a moonscape. That's probably why no one bothered to read that it had a good bore and chambers, and that the gun locked up tight with timing that was perfect.
I took a chance and bid the minimum. Within a day, the auction ended with me being the only bidder. When the old Colt showed up at my local FFL dealer, I was almost ashamed to tell them I had actually paid money for it. And to be quite honest about it, I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew.
The gun, however, was exactly as described, and I was surprised at the condition of the barrel and cylinders. I still wonder how anything could get so pitted on the exterior and still be almost pristine inside. The trigger pull was smooth and crisp and the gun shot just fine. I now had a gun that was as ugly as sin but a fine shooter, and I could have simply left it that way. But I had bought the gun as a project, and I already had an idea or two about where I was going to go with it.
Like some beers that have "born-on" dating these days, guns have a born-on date that's coded into the serial number. The number on this Colt told me that it left the Colt factory in 1919, just in time for prohibition and the 20s to come roaring in. Being from Chicago originally, visions of Al Capone, Elliott Ness, and his Untouchables danced in my head as I took my new prize home. During that same time period, a man named John Henry Fitzgerald was representing Colt as a shooter, competitor, and general proponent of the company's products. Like gun guys of every age and time period, old John Henry liked to tinker and make a good thing better. He thought he could make the Police Positive into a more concealable self-defense handgun. On many of these Colts, he shortened the barrel and on some he relocated the front sight. I have seen examples both with and without sights, and I suspect some folks didn't think a front sight was necessary when the action was up close and personal. Or perhaps they worried that the front sight would snag on clothing and slow their "responsetime."
Standard training at that time taught shooters that, when drawing a concealed revolver from a pocket, the thumb of the shooting hand was to be placed on the hammer to keep it from snagging. With the popularity of double-action revolvers, it was no longer necessary to manually cock the hammer, so someone decided to simply remove the hammer spur and have one less thing to worry about in a quick-draw situation. John Henry apparently liked this idea, and he bobbed the hammers on some of the guns he reworked.
His next trick was to cut away the triggerguard in front of the trigger. This gave free access to the trigger with a gloved hand, and meant that the gun could be easily fired by someone dressed for cold weather. Of course, John Henry Fitzgerald lived in a time before guns were designed by lawyers and before the frivolous warnings became the theme of the day. Just a generation before, many pocket guns were called "suicide specials" and didn't have trigger guards at all. Many of these also sported rounded butts.
The guns that J.H. Fitzgerald created out of the Colt revolvers were called "Fitzgerald Specials" or just "Fitz Specials," and they became quite popular with people who felt the need for an easily cancelable handgun in those dangerous and troubled times. Although Mr. Fitzgerald started with the Police Special, he didn't stop there, and I've seen examples of Fitzgerald Special revolvers in sizes all the way up to the huge .45-caliber New Service. The success of the Fitz Specials encouraged Colt to think about this style of concealable handgun, and in 1927 they introduced the Detective Special in .38 Special, and a legend was born.
My Colt was beyond restoring and would have been of little interest to a collector. The pits had already erased the Colt pony from the sideplate and most of the lettering from the barrel. So I decided to pay homage to old John Henry by making up something along the line of one of his specials.
A good assembly/disassembly manual is indispensable when dealing with guns that you've not worked on before and can eliminate a lot of "ah, shucks" moments. I used the NRA Guide to Pistols and Revolvers. I managed to get all the parts out in one piece, and then I started on the long and tedious process of getting rid of the surface pits. I began with 80-grit cloth-backed abrasive, and buffed the barrel like I was shining a pair of shoes. Then I moved on to the frame, where I used a single-cut file to draw file the flat sections and the 80-grit cloth backed with dowels of different diameters to match the contours of the rounded sections. When I thought I had removed all the pits, I followed up with 120-grit cloth, always using a hard backing to maintain the sharp edges. It takes a lot of work to restore the finish on metal as pitted as this, and I devoted many hours over several days to the project before I started to see any real progress.
The next problem was what to do with the deepest pits in the cylinder. For obvious reasons, I didn't want to substantially reduce the wall thickness. After a discussion with some of my gunsmithing friends on how to finish the metal, I took the advice of John Trekel of Hi-Caliber Gunsmithing (2720 E. Hwy. 101, Port Angeles, WA 98362) who told me to "blast it and blue it." This seemed like the most obvious course to take: If you can't eliminate the pits in every nook and cranny, try to hide them.
Before I could do that I first had to cut the barrel, square off the muzzle, and crown it. A hacksaw took care of the shortening of the barrel and the dehorning of the hammer, but the crowning required some special tools. I've never been able to cut straight with a hacksaw, but fortunately that's not a problem in this case. I squared the muzzle as best I could with a file, and then I used the muzzle-facing and chamfering tools from Brownells. A one-caliber set consisting of a 90-degree cutter to face off the muzzle absolutely square, a 45-degree cutter to chamfer the bore, a handle, and a pilot. The cost is right at $150, but that's a lot less expensive than a lathe. Besides, once you have the cutters, all you have to do to crown barrels in other calibers is order the pilots to fit the bore.
Next I removed the front sight and soldered it onto the shortened 2-inch-long barrel. A Dremel tool with a sanding drum took care of smoothing out the hacksaw marks from the hammer where the spur was cut off. I elected not to remove the front of the trigger guard on this gun, because I think that's an unsafe modification. Mr. Fitzgerald may have been comfortable with it, but I didn't want to have to deal with an accidental discharge from a gun that was hastily shoved into a pocket or holster. I did, however, narrow the front of the guard to reduce the possibility of it interfering with a finger entering it. The gun was now ready for bead blasting and bluing. Or so I thought.
It didn't take me long to determine that bead blasting won't hide pits at all, and that sand blasting will only hide pits if they're very small. I had to go back to the files and cloth-backed paper and get the surface nearly blemish free before the tiny pin-hole-sized pits could be disguised by sand blasting. Once I had gone over the entire gun again--reducing the pits to all but a memory--it was time to pick a finish. With all the spray-on, bake-on finishes that are available today, there are a lot more choices than were available just a few years ago. I decided to use Birchwood Casey's Super Blue to put a cold-blue finish on the gun temporarily. This, I reasoned, would keep the surface from rusting while I considered the options.
For now anyway, I've decided that the cold-blue finish is perfectly acceptable. The revolver is now a neat, handy, and concealable six-shot .38, that looks a lot like the Detective Special that sprang from some of these same modifications pioneered by Mr. Fitzgerald. I like to call it my "Pre-Detective Special."
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2009|
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