“Gussy-Up” your Old West Cimarron Single Actions
By Jeff John
The Cimarron 1872 Open Top .44 Colt, 1849 Wells Fargo (with Howell .32 S&W cylinder), and 1851 Navy
.38 Special all look better with heat blue and silver plate as often done to originals.
My growing collection of Old West guns from Cimarron have proven accurate and fun to shoot. Cimarron-imported arms have long been known for their higher level of fit and finish, so only a little more effort was required to make these sixguns visually stunning as well with the addition of a noble metal and exotic-looking blue. Such beautification doesn’t require super expensive tools and only moderate skill.
Small parts finished in the intense “peacock” blue beautifully accent modern hot-salt black finishes as they did on the old 19th century Colts. To compliment the electric blue, Flitz darkened and brightened the factory blue, too, to look more like the old time finishes.
I used to achieve this bright blue on a cast iron lid over a gas stove, since the temperature isn’t all that high (580 degrees F). It’s very time consuming and the color is difficult to control. A better way is dipping in hot salts heated to the correct temp.
For Christmas I bought a Lee 20-pound Magnum Lead Melter on sale at Grafs, plus a 10-pound tub of Brownells’ Nitre Blue Salts, all for about $120. This model Lee pot is for ladle pouring and uncluttered with bottom-pour apparatus. It takes about 20 minutes to come up to heat, and the pot holds about 2 pounds of salts. The salts are hygroscopic, and I put the unused salts in a gallon freezer bag before closing the tub.
A very fun gun (above) is this Cimarron 1849 Wells Fargo with a Howell .32 S&W cylinder. Once gussied up (below),
the nitre-blue small parts bring out the Cimarron case colors. And those silver plated straps really set off the grips.
Polishing the parts isn’t hard. The screws, wedges, ejector heads and triggers were polished successively with 320, 600 and 2,000-grit paper for a quick high polish (I skipped grits in between on the screws). The wedge—with its large surface area—required the in-between steps of 400 and 1,200 grit. Back coarse grits up with a small file if any deep scratches are present (wood otherwise), and back up the finer grits with a hard felt pad (Brownells has them in the stock refinishing section).
After the polish, they’re ready to go. No fingerprints allowed! Use Gun Scrubber, mineral spirits or Dawn dish detergent if needed—just make sure the parts are dry before immersion!
Brownells’ cheap iron wire is soft, easily bent around the parts. Set a small can of water off to the side for a quench. The pot can heat the salts much hotter than necessary, so a lead thermometer will allow you to control the temp. Slightly hotter (around 650 degrees F) than the color you want speeds things up. My pot reached 650 turned just under “5” on the dial. At the right temp, you can air cool the parts, but the quench is important to stop the color otherwise.
Once the nitre salts are dissolved, scoop off the pink scum and discard it in an old coffee can. Dip the part (the solution will be mostly transparent), pull it out and look at it (having a work light near the pot helps). You’ll see the part progress as it comes to temperature from yellow to light purple to peacock blue. If the color isn’t right, polish it off and do it again.
Small parts come up to color in just a few seconds. The wedge took about 20 seconds. I often just hold small parts with needlenose pliers. The pliers also act as a heat sink so small screws come up a little more slowly. Just be sure to dry the pliers well each time! Dry and oil the parts with good ol’ 3-in-1. Brownells recommends letting them sit for a day or so, and if they were large parts I probably would, but I’m a little impatient. I found no downside to turning in the screws. Each gun took just a few hours from start to finish. Handy tip: Have a small magnet you can lower into the pot if you drop a screw.
I wear the same safety gear I do when I’m bullet casting: leather work gloves, safety glasses (minimum) or full face shield (preferred), gloves, apron, longsleeve shirt and long pants. Remember: You have quench water near the part, and really high temps+water create an extreme splatter hazard. Do not put wet parts or tools in the salts! Keep a towel nearby.
One thing about the polish. If you want an electrifying look, polish to the high grits, but the blue is very fragile and wears easily. If you want the blue to be more durable, stop at 600 grit and polish to blend the scratches. The blue will last longer since it will be deeper in the metal. Some spin the screws in a drill, but I prefer the look when polished fore and aft with the grain.
Nitre blue and silver plating provide striking contrast.
The Cimarron 1872 has had the blue polished, the small parts fire blued, the triggerguard
and backstrapsplated and the frame case colored (more on this new method in the future).
All but the case coloring can be done at home easily.
Caswell Plug and Plate kits come in a variety of metals. Nickel, copper, silver and gold are among the ones most useful to gunnies, and all are quite easy to use. But they do have limitations. Up front I’ll say you’ll likely not be happy trying to plate an entire gun in this fashion. I wasn’t, but I’m living with it for now.
I did the Cimarron 1851 Cartridge Conversion in silver plate. Some areas came out well, others came out streaky or thin, and I wound up doing the gun twice. The steel parts have to be copper plated before the silver will stick. Try to brush in long even strokes, building up the plate as evenly as you can. Even then the finish is very thin, can be streaky and wears quickly. Maybe I’ll try to make the ’51 look a little older, as if the plating wore. While I think about “how,” I’ll let it tarnish.
Where the plating shined (if you’ll pardon the pun) is on the brass triggerguard and backstraps. There, the silver plate went on thick and sure on all three guns, and has held up to regular handling, while it is already wearing at the edges of the frame and barrel of the ’51. The brass plates quickly and I was finished with the blued revolvers in about 30 minutes from setup to cleanup.Plating over the Uberti polish, it came out great. The silver plate really shows off the grips and changes the look of the orange-ish Uberti grip color dramatically for the better.
Here’s how the 1872 and 1860 appeared from the factory. The 1860’s grips have been given an oil
finish. The oil-finished grips are warm to the touch, better than Uberti’s slick factory finish.
Tips & Techniques
The plating looks best under a high polish, so plan on going to 1,200 grit or better. Since I made a few mistakes on the initial go-around, I polished the ’51 only to 600 so the scratches show. My initial thought was the plating would have some texture to hold on to. Instead, it just looks like there are scratches under the plate. Polish it well! The gun must be thoroughly clean, and Dawn detergent does a great job.
The plating electrode only sends electricity along about 4 inches of metal so it was impossible for the “brush” or “wand” to plate the 7-1/2-inch barrel without changing the location of the electrode. If you stop and change the electrode loaction, you’ll see a seam where you stopped. To plate the length of the barrel, I used a piece of 14-gauge solid copper wire bent several times to make contact all the way down.
If the plating brush stays in one spot too long, it turns the finish black. Instead of the recommended 0000 steel wool (which seemed to remove the silver as well as tarnish), a piece of cotton salvaged from a vitamin bottle polished the tarnish off. Then gentle use of steel wool brightens it further.
Finishing an entire gun is not this system’s strong suit, but for smaller jobs it excels. I feel it was worthwhile at $60.49. On a budget? The nickel plate kit is cheaper at $43.99, and works on both brass and steel. Get both nickel and the copper in one kit for $60.49, but you’ll still need the separate silver kit, since it uses a different transformer than the nickel/copper.
Caswell Brush Plating Kits beautify triggerguards and backstraps easily (above), but it’s a stretch to
finish an entire gun. The copper wire attached to the black alligator clip helped plate the length of
the barrel, since otherwise the barrel is too long for the electroplate brush. Note the 1851’s finish
is starting to tarnish after only a couple of months. A Lee Magnum Lead Pot (below), a tub of the salts
and an optional lead thermometer are all you need to fire blue the parts on myriad guns.
The 1860’s and 1851’s grips were stripped, reshaped and the wood given an oil finish. The natural linseed oil always feels sure in hand and cool/warm to the touch, unlike the finish Uberti uses. Theirs is always slick and cold/hot in the hand, getting more slippery in hot weather.
The cartridge conversions like the 1851 and 1860 are difficult to refinish completely because of the way the breechplate and loading gate attach to the frame. Uberti’s system works well, since these guns are made for smokeless powder. The big cylinder pin threads into the frame and a boss tightly traps the breechplate. A steel pin is then inserted into a hole drilled to bisect the frame and cylinder pin to ensure the pin never loosens. Advanced gunsmithing skills are required. Many of these guns have nice case colors and just the Flitz/nitre blue treatment boosts their looks dramatically.
It’s hard in a photo (left) to convey the night and day difference between the slightly milky factory
finish and the new jet black enhanced by Flitz. The guns now more sharply reflect light than before and
the quality of the Cimarron’s polish underneath is the key. Note the brown color on the pad. Bluing is
essentially rust, so don’t be surprised at what the polish reveals!
The Flitz Enhancement
While I was surfing Brownells’ catalog I stumbled on Flitz Liquid Polish and a user’s comment about it enhancing hot salt blue. The blue on these Cimarrons is very good, but a gentle buffing with the Flitz on a soft felt pad really darkened and brightened it up. The finish on the 1872 and 1860 now look more like the “charcoal blue” of the originals. I doubt you’ll be able to see the difference in the photos, but it changed the look of the pistols dramatically. Well worth $9.99, and the half hour it took to do.
Curved surfaces come out easily with little fuss, but use on sharp angles like the flats of an octagon barrel’s can remove the blue on the edges. Should you do so, try G96 Blue Créme and apply it using a Q-tip, toothpick or patch. It matches the color well.
Be sure you get all the Flitz off before reassembly. It’s an abrasive, and you don’t want it in screw holes or sharp corners. A toothbrush, toothpick and small bristle brushes help. When it’s dry, it comes off easily, but sometimes needs a little encouragement.
Graf & Sons
Howell Old West