First Big Bore Sixguns – Part 3

The Cartridge Conversions
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The Remington Cartridge Conversion is available in a 5 ½" barreled version such as this one chambered for .38 Special/.38 Colt.

In 1856, Smith & Wesson entered into an agreement with Rollin White who held the patent on revolvers with bored-through cylinders, and then in 1857 (some sources say August 1858), using this patent, Smith & Wesson introduced the Model #1 as the first cartridge firing revolver. This little seven-shot, tip-up, single-action revolver was chambered in what we now know as the .22 Short. In the mid-1860s, the Model #1 1/2 was offered in .32 Rimfire. Then in late 1869/early 1870, Smith & Wesson hit the sixgunnin’ jackpot with the Model #3 American chambered in both the centerfire .44 S&W American and the .44 Henry Rimfire. The latter is the same chambering found in the lever action 1860 Henry and 1866 Winchester so for the first time it was possible to have a repeating rifle and revolver chambered in the same cartridge. You could say these two rifles were now the first pistol caliber carbines. Sam Colt could have had the Rollin White patent ahead of Smith & Wesson but felt powder, cap and ball would always be preferred.

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Antique finished Remington New Model Army
compared to a conversion in .45 Colt.

Remington Cartridge Conversions

Due to the White patent, no one else except Smith & Wesson would be allowed to produce cartridge-firing revolvers until 1869. In 1868, Smith & Wesson entered an agreement with Remington allowing them to convert their percussion pistols to cartridge firing revolvers using a bored-through cylinder. For this privilege Remington had to pay Smith & Wesson one dollar per pistol, which was a large sum in those days. The Civil War had ended in 1865 and both Colt and Remington found themselves with a large surplus of percussion pistols that could be converted to cartridge firing sixguns.

Sam Colt was now gone and the Colt company was left out in the cold. While Remington was willing to pay Smith & Wesson for the privilege of turning their percussion pistols into cartridge firing sixguns, Colt was not.

In 1866 Remington began to convert both their .44 Army and .36 Navy percussion pistols to accept cartridges. To do this, that is, change the cap-and-ball revolver that loaded with powder and round balls from the front of the cylinder into one which loaded with cartridges from the back of the cylinder, an auxiliary cylinder replaced the percussion cylinder and accepted cartridges. Two years later Remington made a deal with Smith & Wesson to allow them to manufacture Remingtons with a cartridge-firing cylinder.

Actually, Remington was not this forward-looking. However, a Cincinnati arms dealer by the name of Benjamin Kittredge ordered 4,575 cartridge-firing Remingtons and paid the $1 per revolver royalty to Smith & Wesson. A recoil plate was attached to the recoil shield of the Remington frame with a small screw.

The idea of a loading gate had not yet appeared so the Remington recoil shield and frame were cut away to allow cartridges to be loaded and removed. Also there was no ejector rod, so these early cartridge Remingtons were simply adapted to take a bored-cylinder accepting a .46 Remington Rimfire cartridge. The next step was to add an ejector rod and housing on the right side of the barrel. The ejector rod itself was held in place by a slot in the loading lever; this was the only purpose the loading lever left over from percussion revolvers actually served.

Although Remington had agreed to pay a royalty to Smith & Wesson, either Colt would not or Smith & Wesson never offered. So Colt still had to get around the Rollin White bored-through cylinders patent held by Smith & Wesson. What is very strange is the fact White worked for Colt before going to Smith & Wesson, which means Colt could have had the first chance at the patent. Then again, maybe they didn’t want it

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Targets fired at 20 yards with the .45 Colt Remington Conversion.

The Remington Cartridge Conversion became the 1875 Remington.

Richards Conversions

Colt had thousands of parts on hand and the U.S. Army had thousands of percussion sixguns. When the Smith & Wesson patent ran out, Richards’ patent was used by Colt to convert cap-n-ball sixguns to the new fixed-ammunition style. 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-n-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 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. Richards Conversions consist of a new breech plate or conversion ring. This ring had a loading gate in the conversion ring, a rebounding firing pin. (And we thought this was a modern idea!) The loading lever and bullet seater were replaced by an ejector housing with ejector rod, ejector rod head and spring. This required some machining of the barrel.

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 the aforementioned ejector rod housing stops about 1″ in front of the face of the cylinder. Second Model Richards Conversions, or Richards II, added a gated cylinder.

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