Colt 1851 OMC Conversion
THE COLT SOLUTION--THE .44 COLT CARTRIDGE CONVERSIONS
BY JOHN TAFFIN
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?
Colt 1860 Thuer Conversion
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.
Left and right side views of original Richards Conversion.
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 toWinchester. 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 atSaberRiveras 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 theWalkerto 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 1866Winchesterleverguns; 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.