Not Your Average Colt Conversion
Updated: Jul 28
Usually, when you encounter a firearm that’s undergone a conversion, it’s done to bring the gun up to speed with current technology, such as flintlock to percussion, percussion to cartridge, etc. Rarely do you see something go in the other direction, and yet that’s exactly what I encountered with this gun.
This handgun started life as a Colt Model 1862 Police revolver in .36 caliber. Loaded with loose black powder, topped with a bullet, and ignited with a percussion cap, this six-shot revolver was state-of-the-art when it was made in 1863. As time went on, many of these guns were converted to shoot self-contained metallic cartridges.
But not this gun.
Something went wrong somewhere in the gun’s life that required some serious surgery to keep it going. Exactly what happened will forever remain a mystery, but the jagged edge of the left underside of the barrel indicates that it was separated by extreme force and not cleanly cut away. Perhaps the cylinder ruptured due to either a chain fire or an overloaded chamber. The force of that blast could have blown off one of the legs that held the barrel in place on the leading edge of the frame.
In a perfect world, the gun’s owner would just get a new gun, but the world is far from perfect. Even though the cylinder and part of the underside of the barrel were damaged, the frame was still solid. A new cylinder and barrel could have been put on and the gun would be good as new, but that’s not what happened. Maybe replacement parts were simply unavailable. We will never know for sure.
What we do know for sure is that while six shots are certainly better than one, one shot is certainly better than none.
With a little bit of ingenuity, some spare steel, and a couple of small sheets of brass, this gun was back in the fight as a single-shot percussion conversion.
While the left leg under the barrel is jagged, the right one appears to have been cut off cleanly to even the two out. Then, the loading lever assembly was removed from underneath the barrel. A hole was drilled through the barrel legs in front of the wedge and fitted for a screw. Then, a small sheet of brass was attached to the side of the screw with the head, the screw was inserted through the hole, and the brass was bent around to the other side. The brass was crimped into place and then the screw was peened and filed to turn it into a rivet.
At the front of the barrel, another piece of brass was cut and shaped to create a ferrule for the new steel ramrod. The brass ferrule was then soldered to the underside of the barrel.
The breech of the barrel would have been completely open to permit firing the ball from the cylinder chamber, but as a single-shot conversion, that wouldn’t work. One of the nipples was removed from the cylinder and then fit permanently into place in the barrel’s breech with the nipple protruding so that it was flush with the face of the recoil shield.
The forwardmost piece of the frame was cut back, removing most of the serial number. Why this was done isn’t clear, as it has no bearing on how the barrel attaches. Perhaps it was damaged somehow when the barrel legs came apart. The center pin upon which the cylinder normally sat was cut back and a new slot for the wedge was cut into it.
With all the modifications made, the gun could be reassembled. The barrel slid onto the frame’s cylinder pin and was locked in place with the barrel wedge, just as it would have been done normally, albeit this time in a much shorter configuration. Then, a modified screw went through the brass sheet on the bottom of the frame as an extra means of securing the barrel to the frame.
The hammer originally had a notch cut into it to act as a rear sight when cocked, but the new barrel configuration required an alteration. The hammer tip was flattened, drawn out a bit, and curved up slightly. This was essential given that the barrel is now at a slight downward angle compared to the frame. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough, as the hammer notch lines up with the front sight when placed on half-cock, but it’s too low to be used when the hammer is at full-cock.
This model was made between 1861 and 1873, with the serial number indicating that this particular gun was made in 1863. Even after all it has been through, the serial numbers still match on all the remaining parts. The frame, trigger guard, backstrap, and one-piece wooden grip all have matching serial numbers.
As an interesting aside to the serial number, you’ll notice that there’s an ‘L’ below it in each place. This was to denote guns made in New Haven, CT, that were slated for sales through Colt’s London agency.
Despite the hard life that this gun has endured, it still functions. All of the original springs still hold tension and the sears still do their job. The nipple is intact and unobstructed, and the barrel’s rifling is almost perfect. The only thing that has truly suffered on the remaining portions of the gun are the screws. As is so often the case, someone was ill-prepared for the job and they managed to bugger up a screw or two. Well, in this case, they buggered up all but the two on the trigger guard. The rest were distorted, widened out, or in the case of two, completely disfigured. I can’t help but wonder what they were using in place of a screwdriver to mangle them so badly.
Thankfully, my set of Magna-Tip screwdrivers from Brownells has a wide variety of blade thicknesses and widths, so I was able to safely remove all of the screws that still had slots so that I could clean the gun and put it back together.
Now, you’ll note that I said earlier that the gun still ‘functions’ and not that the gun still ‘shoots.’ I don’t have any .36 caliber round balls yet, but once I get some, I fully intend on seeing if this survivor will still get the job done, albeit one round at a time instead of six.
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